School librarians could face criminal charges under Georgia bill

Legislation would strip them of current protections under ‘harmful materials to minors’ law
Georgia State Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon, spoke during a press conference on the Senate Majority Caucus’s legislative priorities at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Kennedy, the Senate's president pro tem, has signed on to Senate Bill 154, which would criminalize school librarians who let minors have material deemed "harmful." (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Georgia State Sen. John F. Kennedy, R-Macon, spoke during a press conference on the Senate Majority Caucus’s legislative priorities at the Capitol in Atlanta on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Kennedy, the Senate's president pro tem, has signed on to Senate Bill 154, which would criminalize school librarians who let minors have material deemed "harmful." (Arvin Temkar / arvin.temkar@ajc.com)

Several Georgia Senate Republican leaders are backing legislation that would criminalize school librarians who let students check out books found to be obscene.

State law currently shields the gatekeepers at public libraries — plus those at any school, college or university — from criminal prosecution for sharing materials considered irredeemably sexually explicit. Senate Bill 154 by Sen. Greg Dolezal, R-Alpharetta, would remove school librarians from that exemption, exposing them to a misdemeanor “of a high and aggravated nature.”

Dolezal could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But Cindy Martin, co-plaintiff in a successful federal lawsuit against Forsyth County Schools over free speech connected with books in libraries there, said she’s been emailing him about this issue since last year.

“I’ve kept him updated on all of the explicit books,” Martin said by text message, “sharing excerpts with him so that he would see how this legislation is desperately needed for our children.”

Martin and Alison Hair, members of a local group called the Mama Bears, say there are obscene books in Forsyth school libraries. A federal judge agreed with their claim that the school board violated their free speech rights when it banned Hair from their meetings after she read into the public record a sexually suggestive passage from one of the books. (The board’s rules prohibited the use of “profane” language, among other behavior.)

The Georgia Library Media Association said that if the law passes, it will be students rather than librarians who suffer. The association represents nearly 700 school librarians, and their president, Martha Bongiorno of Fulton County, said they are “ashamed” of the lawmakers supporting this bill.

“If we really care about our students and their mental health and helping them become well-rounded citizens of the world, we need to be able to provide the materials to do that,” Bongiorno said.

She said such a law might lead librarians to withhold appropriate books, fearing they might be considered illegal. This would lead to a lack of resources for the “most vulnerable” students, she said.

School library books that have been attacked as obscene in recent years often dealt with gender identity, sexual orientation or race. All but one of the senators who co-sponsored SB 154 are male, and all are white.

Lawmakers have tried in years past to expose librarians to penalties under the law, which makes it a crime to give minors recordings, pictures or anything printed — including books, magazines and pamphlets — that is deemed “harmful” to them.

Examples under the law include depictions of sex, nudity and sadomasochistic abuse absent “literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.”

Several influential GOP senators are among the 21 who initially have co-sponsored the bill: President Pro Tem John F. Kennedy from Macon, Majority Leader Steve Gooch from Dahlonega, Majority Caucus Chair Jason Anavitarte from Dallas and Majority Whip Randy Robertson from Cataula.

The chairmen of the Senate’s two education committees — Clint Dixon, R-Buford, over K-12 policy; and Billy Hickman, R-Statesboro, over higher education — are also on board.

When they held a news conference last month, the Republicans who lead Georgia’s Senate did not say they wanted to reengage in the culture wars that caused bitter division last year. They instead highlighted core issues like literacy. But they have subsequently engaged on divisive issues, introducing legislation that would prohibit classroom discussions about sex and gender, restrict surgeries for transgender youth and revisit the “religious liberty” debate.

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