Think Out Loud

Oregon bill aims to ban school book bans

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Feb. 14, 2024 5:43 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, Feb. 14

File: Some of the LGBTQ-themed books available at the Crook County Library in December 2022.

File: Some of the LGBTQ-themed books available at the Crook County Library in December 2022.

Joni Land / OPB

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Senate Bill 1583 would prevent school boards and district personnel from banning textbooks and library books on the basis of content related to race, LGBTQ+ identities, religion, disability or other protected group. The bill was introduced by Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, and has drawn more than 500 testimonies. On Tuesday, a hearing was held for the bill. Julia Shumway is the deputy editor for the Oregon Capital Chronicle and has been covering the bill. She joins us with the details.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with one of the bills that Oregon lawmakers are considering right now. It’s received more public testimony than almost any other issue in this short session. Senate Bill 1583 is a response to the nationwide increase in book bans, or attempted bans, in schools. It would prevent school boards or district personnel in Oregon from banning textbooks or library books just because they include people who are members of groups that are already protected under the state’s anti-discrimination laws. Julia Shumway is the deputy editor and politics reporter for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. She’s been covering this bill and she joins us with more. Julia, welcome back.

Julia Shumway: Thank you.

Miller: So I mentioned the national context there. But can you remind us about the Oregon version of this? What’s been happening in terms of book bans in schools in Oregon?

Shumway: We’ve seen an increase here in Oregon as well as nationally. The Oregon State Library tracks challenges to books; it’s done this since the 1980s. And last year, it found that there were attempts to remove 93 separate titles from school libraries and public libraries in Oregon. That’s more than any other year since the library began tracking this.

Miller: Longtime Democratic state Sen. Lew Frederick from Portland sponsored this bill. What did he tell you about his reasons?

Shumway: Sen. Frederick described himself as being really concerned by this increase nationally and in Oregon in book bans. He’s someone who grew up on college campuses as the son of a mycology professor, and also in the civil rights movement. He was friends with Martin Luther King’s kids, helped integrate his high school in Atlanta. He’s lived some of the history that he’s worried people are trying to erase or remove from school curriculums and libraries.

Miller: What exactly would Senate Bill 1583 do?

Shumway: It would spell out that no one can remove a textbook from a curriculum or remove a book from a library if the reason that they’re trying to remove this book is because either the author or a character in the book belongs to a protected class. So someone who’s LGBTQ+, someone who’s a person of color, a person with disabilities, any kind of protected class. You can’t remove a book if your only reason is that you don’t want to have something by an author or about a character who’s part of that class.

Miller: You noted in your reporting that before yesterday’s hearing this bill had already gotten more public comments than lawmakers received about Governor Kotek’s $500 million housing bill, or nearly any other measure that lawmakers are considering right now. Can you give us a sense for what people have been focusing on?

Shumway: Those public comments keep rolling in. They’re up to more than 1,400 comments.

Miller: It was 500 just a couple of days ago when you wrote the article.

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Shumway: Yes, and it’s likely to go up. People have about another 24 hours from the time we’re speaking to leave comments. So that is more than any other bill that we’ve seen so far.

A lot of the opponents have concerns that books that they think are inappropriate for kids are being put in classrooms or in school libraries, essentially that their kids and other people’s kids are having to read books, especially books about LGBTQ+ people, that they don’t think are appropriate for children.

Supporters, who include many teachers and students, say it’s really important for kids to see themselves represented in the books they’re reading in class or in the library, that they should be able to see characters who look like them, and not just the founding fathers that we read about.

Miller: Let’s hear some of the testimony from the hearing yesterday. We’re going to hear three people, the first and third against this bill, the one in the middle in favor of it. So in order we’re going to hear from Susan Gallagher, from the group Parents Rights in Education, Darin Stewart, the president of the group Parents Defending Schools and Libraries, and Isla Hoffler from Banks, Oregon.

Susan Gallagher [recording]: Stop messing with our kids. Oregon SB 1583 prohibits all local school boards from choosing or restricting materials used in a school when the choice is discrimination. My, my, how that word discrimination has been twisted and turned, and turned against us. Do we discriminate against grooming? And harmful child porn shown to school children, beginning in kindergarten? You bet we do.

Darin Stewart [recording]: We trust that as parents, we’ve instilled our values into our kids and don’t feel threatened by the possibility of them reading something that doesn’t necessarily align with those values. We want to have those conversations with our kids. That’s how critical thinking and empathy are both developed, two things that are sadly on the decline in our country now. We don’t want our children to be indoctrinated. But the simple presence of a book in a library is not indoctrination. Trying to remove books that don’t represent our worldview is indoctrination.

Isla Hoffler [recording]: You’re tying the hands of a school board, and they have to comply to some ideology. And I wanna know who’s discerning what is discrimination and what isn’t. Example, what if a white girl writes a book about being a national first-class swimmer, and how she lost everything because a biological male got to compete against her. Who’s gonna decide, is that discriminating against the girl, or the biological male that decided to be female? I just see this is gonna be insane. And people who live in a certain geography that know their culture and know their children should make these decisions.

Miller: Julia on that last point, who would be deciding what constitutes discrimination?

Shumway: This particular bill doesn’t name the person or group that would decide what constitutes discrimination. It kind of leaves it up to Oregonians. Talking to Sen. Frederick, the idea is that if a parent or a concerned citizen, if anyone sees a school attempt to ban a book and they think it’s because of discrimination, they can complain, they could maybe go as far as filing a civil lawsuit.

Miller: This bill, as you noted earlier, it’s reliant on existing Oregon statute that right now prohibits discrimination in schools on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, marital status, age, or disability. Given that it’s based on that existing statute, would it be legal under current state law for a district to ban a book simply because the book includes, say, a study of the roles or contributions of members of those protected classes?

Shumway: This was an issue that Sen. Frederick, when he introduced this bill, thought state law doesn’t clearly ban those kinds of book bans. Our state law protects against discrimination against people in schools. It doesn’t already protect against discrimination against fictional characters or historical figures in books.

Miller: Did you get a sense at the hearing yesterday, or from your other reporting, if this bill has support from the Democratic majority right now?

Shumway: It definitely seems to. Sen. Frederick had another state senator, Kayse Jama, come and testify for the bill with him. He’s had about half the Democratic caucus in the Senate sign on. And assuming that other Democrats support it and leaders don’t decide that this bill is a distraction to the legislative session, I think it’s likely we’ll see Democrats pass it.

Miller: Julia, thanks very much.

Shumway: Thank you.

Miller: Julia Shumway is deputy editor and politics reporter for the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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