Pa. Senate passes ‘explicit content’ legislation after heated debate over whether it’s a book ban

Most Democrats regarded Senate Bill 7 as a book ban, but Republicans said it would improve parental control over what their kids read.

By: - October 24, 2023 8:52 pm

Copies of banned books from various states and school systems from around the county are seen during a press conference by U.S. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) at the U.S. Capitol on March 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The Pennsylvania Senate on Tuesday voted to advance legislation that purports to give parents more insight and control over what their children are reading in school. But opponents vigorously argued the measures are a de facto book ban, and a redundant effort to exclude content by and for marginalized communities.

Senate Bill 7 passed 29-21, with state Sen. Lisa Boscola, (D-Northampton), voting with the Republican majority. It would require schools to identify sexually explicit content in school curriculum, materials, and books, create an opt-in policy to notify parents of the sexually explicit content by including a list of the book titles on a form, allow parents to review the materials, and require parents to give direct consent for their children to be provided or have access to sexually explicit content. It was advanced by the Senate Education Committee last week. 

The bill’s prime sponsor Sen. Ryan Aument, (R-Lancaster), has been working on similar legislation since 2021, and has insisted that SB 7 is not a book ban, an argument he reiterated on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday. 

“We are not seeking to ban books and we are not seeking to censor any group,” Aument said. “We are simply seeking to empower parents to make decisions about their own child, not anyone else’s. One must only look at local school board races and local school board meetings all across this Commonwealth to see that this is an issue that concerns many parents.”

Aument said he had taken a “measured approach” to crafting the legislation. “We listened to families. We listened to school administrators, teachers and librarians. And we worked hard to draft a proposal to make sure all sides could feel heard and respected,” he said, adding that what resulted was a proposal that closely resembles legislation recently passed in Virginia. 

School districts struggle to implement new laws on sexually explicit books

State Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, (D-Delaware), said SB 7 is a book ban. She called it part of a “stunning and increasing trend of censoring books in schools and libraries,” and “a direct attack on the right to read and our freedom of speech.” 

Cappelletti said the “extreme vocal minority” pushing book bans was missing a “glaring” reality. 

“We all like to believe that every child grows up in a family that loves and values them for exactly who they are. We know that unfortunately, is not true,” she said, adding many kids are left needing a support system and information outside their families, which they can often find in books.

 “The kids who need books that explore gender identity and sexual orientation, are the most likely ones whose parents are denying them and their communities the right to learn from these books,” she added. “Exploring human relationships, sex and love are some of the most challenging and rewarding obstacles that we will face in life. And we need the right education and materials available to ensure people can explore those spaces safely and with the right knowledge to be able to interact with the world around them compassionately.”

Sen. Nikil Saval, (D-Philadelphia), said the bill was not specific enough in its definition of what was “explicit,” and cautioned that its present language could exclude works of literature like Milton’s Paradise Lost, St. Augustine’s Confessions, or The Song of Solomon, all of which contain explicit references to sexuality. He noted that Paradise Lost was one of 150 books recently removed from the shelves of an Orlando, Fla. school district.

“The experience of many states that have adopted similar ordinances shows these invidious distinctions are not so easily drawn, haplessly and clumsily though the bill tries,” Saval said. “Let us be sober and clear about what this bill, if passed, would do. The standards of liberal education for which our founders fought would be decimated. SB 7 would destroy the educational system it purports to uphold.”

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Boscola, who broke with Democrats to vote in favor of SB 7, said she had worked with Aument on a previous version of the legislation she voted against, and thought the latest version was a marked improvement.

“Senate Bill 7 strikes the needed balance between parental control over their child’s exposure to sexually explicit content,” Boscola said. School boards, she added, are in an impossible position of having to make decisions about books, holding meetings where parents show up to protest that grow heated. 

“There are some groups that want to ban all books that have even the slightest reference to sexually explicit content. And groups on the other side that see all sexually explicit content as being OK,” she said. “This General Assembly needs to lead. It needs to set forth a statewide policy that balances those radically different viewpoints of parents on both sides of this issue. We cannot leave this up to 500 different school boards.” 

Sharon Ward, senior policy advisor at the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, said the state already has strong protections in place, and SB 7 will only further encourage book-banning activities at the school district level. 

“The bill will divert educators from their work with students, requiring them to search through thousands of volumes to find a single word or phrase that could offend a parent, regardless of the merit or popularity of the book, ignoring two decades of court decisions that have rejected this form of book banning,” Ward wrote in an email to the Capital-Star.

Senate Bill 340, sponsored by state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), requires school districts to post on their website a link or title for every textbook used by its schools, a course syllabus, and the state academic standards for each course. 

Several Democrats objected to SB 340 on the grounds that it is redundant. Sen. Art Haywood, (D-Philadelphia), cited several school districts’ policies that already allow parents to review reading materials. “School districts already provide for significant parent, guardian or student input on the materials that are in the library and in the curriculum,” Haywood said.

Similar curriculum-focused legislation was approved by the Senate and the House in 2021 but was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Sen. Jay Costa, (D-Allegheny), called SB 340 “an example of a solution in search of a problem with political motives behind it,” adding it would only serve to add more mandates to already overburdened school districts. 

Mastriano said there was “nothing nefarious or political” behind the legislation. “This is definitely something we need to do to build trust with parents,” he said. 

SB 340 passed along party lines, 28-22. 

Growing national rise in book bans

Over the past several years, there has been an unprecedented wave of book bans and censorship spurred by parents and right-wing groups. Many of the bans started during the early days of the pandemic in 2020, part of the frustration over mask mandates and online learning that eventually led to the politicization of school board meetings.

U.S. House Republicans target ‘explicit’ books in school libraries

The U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee held a hearing last week about whether some books containing LGBTQ+ content should be removed from public school libraries. Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said during th hearing that the organization has been doing research on book bans “on and off for about 100 years as these issues have flared up.”

He said three or four years ago “there was nothing like this on the scene. Something changed. A movement to encourage people to try to censor information and ideas.”

Between Jan 1. and Aug. 1, across public, school, and academic libraries in the U.S. there were 695 attempts to censor library materials and 1,915 challenges to specific titles, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. 

That reflects a 20% increase from 2022, which held the previous record for book challenges since ALA started compiling the data more than two decades ago. According to the ALA, the “vast majority” of challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community. 

‘This is about censorship’: Lawmakers, experts debate the impact and consequences of book bans

“The Pennsylvania Senate approved two bills today that unnecessarily impede student learning and create a burdensome mandate on educators and school librarians,” Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) president Aaron Chapin said in a statement Tuesday. “These bills are completely unnecessary mandates on educators and school librarians who are overworked and underpaid.”

PSEA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, represents about 177,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education staff, and health care workers statewide.

Chapin, who is also a middle school teacher in the Stroudsburg Area School District, added that such legislation would further serve to deter teachers from coming to work in the Keystone State.

“We need to stop accusing hardworking educators of indoctrinating kids,” he said. “If you want yet another example of why Pennsylvania continues to see educator shortages, here is Exhibit A. We don’t need overreaching state legislation for issues that are worked out at the local level on a daily basis.”

Both bills now head to the Democratic-majority House.

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly

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