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‘Book banning’ bill passes Kentucky Senate

The book Gender Queer lay on a desk.
Jess Clark
"Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe is the biggest target of book bans in the U.S., according to the American Libraries Association.

A Kentucky lawmaker’s proposal criticized as a “book banning” bill passed the state Senate Thursday. The measure would make it easier for parents to challenge books and instructional materials in schools they find obscene and harmful to minors.

Senate Bill 5 filed by Republican Sen. Jason Howell of Murray would require districts to create a process for parents to request banning certain books, materials, programs and school events. Parents can file requests that would start with the principal and then go to the local board of education, if needed.

The purpose of Senate Bill 5, Howell told his fellow senators Thursday, is to ensure a parent's right to be involved in their children's access to materials, programs or events in school.

“They [parents] need to be able to have a voice when those items are in conflict with their families values and beliefs,” he said.

Under the bill, material “harmful to minors” means it:

  • “Contains the exposure in an obscene manner, of the unclothed or apparently unclothed human male or female genitals, pubic area, or buttocks or the female breast, or visual depictions of sexual acts or simulations of sexual acts, or explicit written descriptions of sexual acts.”
  • “Taken as a whole, appeal[s] to the prurient interest in sex.” 
  • “Is patently offensive to prevailing standards regarding what is suitable for minors.”

Howell brought the measure amid a wave of attempts by conservatives to censor or ban books nationwide. Titles most commonly targeted usually center LGBTQ, Black and Latino voices.

Those challenges are popping up in Kentucky, and many districts already have policies in place to consider parent complaints about instructional materials and books.

Speaking in committee, Jefferson County activist Miranda Stovall lamented that her 2022 challenge against “Gender Queer” took eight months to complete. Stovall challenged a middle and high school’s stocking of the graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe on the grounds that the depictions of the protagonist’s sexual fantasies constituted “pornography.” She lost her appeal.

“The process to get these books into schools is quick and easy, and the process to get them removed is grueling,” Stovall told the Senate Education Committee Thursday.

Kate Miller, with the ACLU of Kentucky, told the committee that keeping children from reading or exploring certain ideas by banning books would not be helpful to either parents or kids.

“An idea isn’t something that should scare me. All of our children are going to be exposed to radical ideas. I'd rather us have conversations about it than ask the school to prohibit them from being able to access something that is inconsistent with my values,” Miller said.

Sen. Lindsey Tichenor, a Republican from Oldham County, argued the measure was not meant to ban books but to “protect children.”

“When we are desensitizing children to sexual things and making this content available in schools, you’re opening the door to sexual abuse. The parent might not feel the child is ready to see some of these things in a public school,” she said in committee.

Later Thursday, all but one Senate Democrat voted against the measure, many accusing its supporters of censorship.

“Make no mistake about Senate Bill 5,” Democratic Sen. Reggie Thomas of Lexington said, speaking in opposition on the Senate floor. “We are continuing to go down the path now of banning books that we as a Legislature say we don't like.”

Sen. Robin Webb of Grayson was the only Democrat who voted in favor of the measure.

Sen. Karen Berg, a Democrat from Louisville, took issue with arguments that the measure was meant to protect children. She said she reviewed the content provided by Tichenor that some parents deem inappropriate, one of which was a graphic description of the rape of a child by her father.

“Now I can understand that the senator from Oldham [Tichenor] doesn’t think that her child needs to see that book, but I can promise you there is a young child in this state that has been cruelly raped by her father, and that book may be a lifeline,” Berg said. “We have different experiences; we have different needs.”

The measure passed 29-4 and heads to the House next.

Berg did not name the book she referenced,but “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison has long topped the lists of most banned books in America, often because parents object to a passage describing the rape of a child by her father.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.
Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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