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Here’s how lawmakers could change Utah’s sensitive materials law for books in 2024

Republican state Rep. Ken Ivory, the sponsor of Utah’s 2022 sensitive materials law, presented to the state Legislature’s interim Education Committee on Oct. 11, 2023, at the Utah State Capitol. He suggested some more changes to how schools deal with sensitive materials.
Martha Harris
Republican state Rep. Ken Ivory, the sponsor of Utah’s 2022 sensitive materials law, presented to the state Legislature’s interim Education Committee on Oct. 11, 2023, at the Utah State Capitol. He suggested some more changes to how schools deal with sensitive materials.

Revising Utah’s 2022 sensitive materials law has been a priority for lawmakers over the interim legislative session. Republican Rep. Ken Ivory, the sponsor behind that 2022 law, and other lawmakers, pushed for the changes, especially after the Davis School District made national news for removing (and eventually returning) the Bible from some schools.

During the interim Education Committee meeting on Wednesday, lawmakers discussed the drafted bill that has been in the works for months. The committee started to vote on whether to favorably recommend the bill out of committee, but some members wanted even more changes, so they decided to hold off on voting until November.

Here are some of the major proposed changes in the potential bill.

‘Objective’ vs. ‘subjective’ sensitive materials

Current Utah law defines “sensitive material” as any instructional material that is “pornographic or indecent.”

But now, lawmakers are looking at drawing a distinction between what they call objective and subjective sensitive material. If a book is deemed to include objective sensitive material, a school can remove it quicker and without the input of parents.

According to the drafted bill, objective sensitive material means it includes a description or depiction of “human genitals in a state of sexual stimulation or arousal; acts of human masturbation, sexual intercourse, or sodomy; fondling or other erotic touching of human genitals or pubic region.”

This standard is colloquially referred to as the “bright line” rule. A June 2022 memo from Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes states that if schools remove books for violating the “bright line,” they will be in compliance with state law. But he added that “federal law may require more.”

Under the newly drafted bill, if a school district or charter school receives a complaint about a book, they will first decide if it contains objective sensitive material and if it does, the district or charter shall “take direct action” to remove the book.

Then, the district will do a full review. They do not have to include parents in that process or consider the book as a whole.

In evaluating materials, the drafted bill says school districts and charter schools, “shall prioritize protecting children from the harmful effects of illicit pornography over other considerations in evaluating instructional material.”

If a challenged book is not deemed to have objective sensitive material, the district or charter will look at whether it has subjective sensitive material. The drafted bill defines that as pornographic or indecent, but does not include the things listed in the “bright line” rule and when taken as a whole, it is deemed as not having any serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

That kind of review would include parents, and the book would still be available to students, with parental permission.

However, the district or charter school board would have the final vote on whether the material ends up being removed.

Banning books statewide

Under the drafted bill, school districts and charter schools would report to the Utah State Board of Education any final decisions about removing sensitive material.

If more than four school districts or more than nine charter schools remove the same book because it contains objective sensitive material, then the state school board would tell all schools statewide to also remove it within 10 days.

Republican Rep. Kera Birkeland proposed lowering that threshold to two school districts or four charter schools.

Additions to the bill draft

Birkeland’s proposition was not voted on by the committee, but she was not the only one to suggest additions to the drafted bill. The committee was given an à la carte list of potential additions, mostly suggestions from Rep. Ivory.

Another potential addition to the bill, brought up by Ivory and supported by Republican Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, deals with public comment periods during school board meetings. It would prohibit school boards from not allowing someone to share or read materials that are available in schools because of the material’s content.

“If it's too indecent for a board meeting, heavens, it's too indecent for the children, I would say,” Ivory said.

Before its November meeting, the chairs of the committee will meet with individual members to see how they feel about the proposed additions. Based on that feedback, they will draft a new bill.

Democratic Sen. Kathleen Riebe was not a fan of that idea. She said while it might be more efficient to hold individual one-on-ones, those conversations should happen during a public meeting.

“People want to hear these conversations in public. So I think that some of this is painful. It's long, it's tedious, but this is what we're elected to do,” Reibe said.

Setting limits

The current bill draft would also add limits on the number of book challenges for some individuals. If someone challenges three books, but none of them are removed after being reviewed, that person would not be able to challenge any more books for the rest of the school year.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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