Oregon Senate approves bill to ban book bans

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Feb. 27, 2024 10:57 p.m.

Senate Bill 1583 would block school districts from withholding access to books for discriminatory reasons. It passed on a party-line vote.

State Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, speaks to guests on the Senate floor at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, April 11, 2019.

State Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, introduced Senate Bill 1583. He says his proposal will increase student choice in what they can read.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

A proposal to stymie the trend of books being banned from school libraries passed out of the Oregon Senate on Tuesday, despite urging by Republicans to put the matter off until next year.


Senate Bill 1583 — one of the more contentious issues to emerge in a five-week legislative session where both parties are largely looking to tackle issues they agree upon — passed the chamber on a 17-12 party-line vote. It now moves to the House.

The bill would block school boards and other school officials from removing or refusing to offer library books or textbooks simply because they contain the perspective of, or are written by, members of protected classes that can include people of color, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and more.

The bill was introduced this year by state Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, in response to a rise in school books being challenged by parents around the country. Frederick says the proposal builds off of existing laws banning discrimination in schools, and that it doesn’t block districts from pulling books that are not age-appropriate for students.

“I saw this and I said, ‘Maybe we can approach this in a different way,’” he told OPB in a recent interview. “What we’re really dealing with is people trying to discriminate. And if we can point out that that’s not allowed, then we can move along and, frankly, get past all of the culture war nonsense that’s been involved in this.”

Frederick’s bill makes Oregon one of a growing number of Democratic states looking to preempt banning books for discriminatory reasons, and has been cheered on by the Oregon Education Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon. But it raised the hackles of some parents and GOP lawmakers who say the state should not be attempting to control local school decisions and accuse Democrats of attempting to indoctrinate kids. SB 1538 has received more than 1,500 pieces of written testimony.

The controversy was in full display on the Senate floor Tuesday.

Some of the LGBTQ-themed books available at the Crook County Library. Senate Bill 1583 would block school districts from withholding access to books for discriminatory reasons.

Some of the LGBTQ-themed books available at the Crook County Library. Senate Bill 1583 would block school districts from withholding access to books for discriminatory reasons.

Joni Land / OPB


Republicans argued that SB 1583 was a drastic step that would only enflame divisions between rural and urban Oregonians. And they argued the bill’s language was broad enough that school boards could be prohibited from blocking access to some books that are not appropriate for children.

State Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, spoke repeatedly about the novel “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, which was banned last year by the Canby School District. The book depicts an adult man sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl.

Bonham questioned whether a school board would be banned from blocking books that depict pedophilia under the bill.

“I’m curious if we consider pedophilia as sexual orientation,” he said before voting against the bill. “I can’t think of an age of a school child in the state of Oregon where that is something that should be encouraged.”

GOP senators attempted to swap Democrats’ version of SB 1583 with their own proposal, which would create a task force to study the subject of limiting access to books in schools and make recommendations for possible future legislation.

“My fear is that if … the bill is passed on partisan lines, the message that Oregonians will receive is that this bill was drafted by Democrats, worked by Democrats, passed by Democrats,” said state Sen. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook. “It will be seen by school boards – particularly school boards in areas where Democrats are not in the majority – as an attack on local control.”

The substitute Republican bill failed along party lines, setting up Frederick’s original bill to pass with the same vote count. “Senate Bill 1583 does not restrict the parent’s right to make individual decisions for their kids,” Frederick said prior to the vote. ”In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This bill preserves educational materials in schools so that the students and their parents maintain the ability to choose what they read and that’s what’s at the core of this.”

Proposed bans have swelled in recent years, with parents and other groups targeting books for being sexually explicit or inappropriate in other ways. An analysis by PEN America, a nonprofit that examines literature and free speech issues, found books flagged as inappropriate often depict protagonists who are people of color or LGBTQ+. In one instance, a textbook was changed to omit references to race in the story of civil rights leader Rosa Parks in order to win approval from Florida school officials.

Oregon has not been immune from the trend. The state librarian says more books were highlighted for possible removal from schools and public libraries last year, 93, than at any point since data collection on such challenges began in 1987.

“No matter the stated reason for a challenge, one pattern is clear: challenged materials are disproportionately about, by, or center the story of people from an underrepresented race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, or disability,” State Librarian Wendy Cornelisen wrote in testimony on SB 1538, noting those are the same groups protected from discrimination under state law. “Over 70% of the items challenged in 2022-23 focus on one or more of those identities.

The Canby School District temporarily removed 36 books from circulation last year, after their content was challenged by parents. The list contained many books that have cropped up in proposed bans around the country. In the end, the district wound up removing just one, “Lolita,” and made four other books available only to high school students.