Illinois Becomes 1st State to Punish Public Libraries for Banning Books

Illinois Becomes 1st State to Punish Public Libraries for Banning Books
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a rally at Federal Building Plaza in Chicago on April 27, 2022. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Bill Pan

Illinois has become the first state to penalize public libraries for removing books under a new law signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker on June 12.

The law requires public libraries across Illinois to adhere to Chicago-based American Library Association’s (ALA) Bill of Rights in order to remain eligible for state funding.

While the ALA standards require libraries to provide materials presenting “all points of view on current and historical issues” and not to exclude books because of the author’s background or views, the Illinois law specifically focuses on just one tenet, which says that library books “should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

The stated goal of the law, which takes effect in January 2024, is to encourage libraries to either adopt the ALA standard or develop their own polices that “prohibit the practice of banning specific books or resources.”

“Young people shouldn’t be kept from learning about the realities of our world,” Pritzker said at a bill-signing ceremony at a Chicago library, surrounded by a display of titles that have been pulled from school libraries across the United States at the requests of concerned parents, such as “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Gender Queer.”

“All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir-manifesto by LGBT activist George M. Johnson, has been removed from school library shelves in at least 15 states because it dedicates an entire chapter to describe in detail the author’s first sexual encounter. “Gender Queer” by cartoonist Maia Kobabe, which frequently appears on the lists of books challenged by concerned parents, graphically depicts the transgender protagonist’s sexual fantasies.

“Everyone deserves to see themselves reflected in the books they read, the art they see, the history they learn,” the Democrat governor said. “In Illinois, we are showing the nation what it really looks like to stand up for liberty.”

Divided by Party

The bill, backed by Pritzker and Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, cleared Illinois’ Democrat-dominated Legislature in almost strictly party-line votes. Its Democrat proponents claimed that the bill is necessary to counter censorship demands from what they called “far-right extremist groups,” while Republican opponents denounced the effort as government overreach.

“I find this a complete assault on local control,” state Rep. Martin McLaughlin, a Republican, said in March during a debate. He argued that public libraries are administered by locally elected boards, and that those boards should be left to decide on their own how to serve their communities.

“These people volunteer as nonpartisan elected local officials, and for the state to tell a local library board, ‘Listen to the professionals,’ ‘Follow the professionals’—I don’t understand why we have local elections anymore if a bill like this passes,” McLaughlin said.

The bill’s primary sponsor, Democrat state Rep. Anne Stava-Murray, dismissed the local control argument as a racist “dog whistle.”

According to Stava-Murray, she filed the legislation after members of right-wing group Proud Boys showed up at school board meetings in Downers Grove, a suburban district she represents, demanding that copies of “Gender Queer” be removed from libraries. The school board eventually decided to keep those books in circulation.

“Downers Grove has seen first-hand what some groups will try to do to prevent access to books that contain language or ideals that they disagree with,” Stava-Murray said. “Librarians and educators are dedicated to their schools and communities and serve out of a love of knowledge, reading and helping people. It’s absurd to think that groups would seek to harass them and create animosity in our communities by driving cultural wedges in an effort to divide them.”

Poor Student Performance

The debate over library books comes as K–12 students in Illinois continue to underperform, despite the state’s effort to increase public school funding.
According to a report published in February by independent policy research group Wirepoints, based on data from the Illinois State Board of Education, there are 53 schools in Illinois in which not a single student can do grade-level math, and 30 schools in which not a single student can read at grade level.

The poor performance doesn’t appear to be the result of a lack of funding. One of those schools, Spry Community Links High School in Chicago, spends more than $35,600 a year per student, but none of the 87 students there could read or do math at their grade level, according to Wirepoints.

On average, Illinois K–12 schools spend $16,277 per student, according to the Education Data Initiative. That’s up from about $13,300 in 2017 before Pritzker took office.
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