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House panel reviews Freedom to Read Act in dramatic hearing

Del. Dana Jones, center, testifies on the Freedom to Read Act before the House Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 21, 2024. Jones serves as sponsor of the legislation that’s part of the “decency agenda” led by House Speaker Adrienne Jones. Photo by William J. Ford.

A bill that proposes to protect library books, reading materials and other resources from would-be censors received a long and at times dramatic first public hearing Wednesday.

The Freedom to Read Act stands atop a “decency agenda” championed by House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), which has become part of a national conversation on what literary material is being made available in public schools and public libraries.

“This crucial and timely legislation will safeguard our libraries from becoming the next frontier of censorship, protecting literature and the freedom for readers to choose for themselves,” the chief sponsor, Del. Dana Jones (D-Anne Arundel), said before the House Ways and Means Committee. “The Freedom to Read Act…will prevent intolerance and hate from taking root in our institutions and in our schools.”

Jones sat alongside five supporters of the legislation, including Skip Dye, senior vice president of library sales and digital strategy for Penguin Random House, the book publisher, who traveled from Delaware to testify. Two of the company’s four distribution centers are located in Carroll County.

“There is a dangerous, national trend of book banning. It silences our authors,” he said. “Book bans take a variety of forms [and] they include restrictions, they include removals and rating systems. By doing these things, they not only compromise the autonomy of libraries but also threaten the basis of our democratic society.”

The bill was the last of 19 to be heard by the Ways and Means Committee Wednesday. The marathon session lasted more than six hours, with the hearing on Jones’ measure lasting almost two hours.

The legislation seeks to protect school and public library employees by stating they “may not be dismissed, suspended, disciplined, demoted, reassigned, transferred or otherwise retaliated against” for following state library standards.

Some of the standards, according to the bill, would include not removing library materials, books and other resources based on an author or creator’s background, origin, or opinions. In addition, a library should not prohibit or remove materials from its catalogue “because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”

If any county library, resource center, or “cooperative service program” developed by the Maryland State Library Agency have policies that aren’t consistent with these state standards, then the state librarian would authorize the state comptroller to withhold state funding from the institution.

A state Library Board has designated three rural county libraries as regional resource centers in Charlotte Hall in Southern Maryland, Hagerstown in Western Maryland and Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, which will become clearinghouses for more library materials and resources than an individual library can provide on its own, according to an analysis of the bill.

Under the legislation, a person cannot “knowingly and” unlawfully take, disfigure, or ruin any book or other library property.

Anyone accused of these offenses would be charged with a misdemeanor and, if found guilty, could spend up to 10 months in jail, pay a fine not exceeding $1,000, or both. The current fine is $250.

Del. Shaneka Henson (D-Anne Arundel) had several questions about the legislation, including whether librarians are contractual or at-will employees.

Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, the CEO of the Baltimore County Public Library, said no library workers in her jurisdiction are contractual.

Cheryl Bost, president of the Maryland State Education Association, said all library workers in the public schools are full-time employees. In elementary schools, she said librarians can also teach “a class of students.”

Henson also asked who would enforce the rules if a person ruined library property and would have to pay an increased penalty.

“If we are talking about asking police to come into our libraries and to enforce these with greater penalties, and then people are in court [and] subject to the criminal legal process, I would want to clearly understand that while making a decision on the bill,” she said.

‘Ripe for legal challenges’

Two people testified in opposition of the bill.

Suzie Scott, chair of the Moms for Liberty’s Maryland Legislative Committee, hoisted a book slightly above her shoulder titled, “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human.” Her gesture revealed a page of the book with pictures of male sex organs.

Scott, chair of the organization’s Harford County chapter, said she got the book from her jurisdiction’s public library.

Lorna Henry, an attorney with a conservative legal defense organization called Pacific Justice Institute, said the bill seeks to promote a sense of “perceived fairness.”

Lorna Henry, right, testifies against the Freedom Act before the House Ways and Means Committee. Next to Henry is Suzie Scott, chair of the Moms for Liberty’s Maryland Legislative Committee. Photo by William J. Ford.

“The language of this bill is not clear and is ripe for legal challenges in its current form,” she said. “Is the freedom of a 6-year-old to read a sexually explicit book greater than the freedom of their parent to direct the upbringing of that child not to read that book?”

If approved, Maryland would represent one of the few states in the nation to approve a policy with strong protections for what can be found in libraries and penalties for those who attempt to thwart it.

Illinois became the first state in the nation last year to sign a similar policy into law, which went into effect Jan. 1.

Several other state legislatures such as ColoradoKansasNew Jersey and New Mexico introduced anti-book banning legislation this year.

The Utah House of Representatives approved an opposite bill Wednesday, to allow local school boards to hold public hearings and decide whether certain books should be banned. The state Board of Education would make final decision on whether to override a ban.

The Utah legislature, which is majority-Republican, approved the measure, which expands a 2022 law that allows parents to challenge “sensitive materials” in schools. The move makes it easier to prohibit “criminally indecent or pornographic” books statewide if they’re banned in a handful of school systems or charter schools.

Back in Maryland, the Senate version of the Freedom to Read Act, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Nancy J. King (D-Montgomery), will be heard at 9 a.m. Friday before the Committee on Education, Energy and the Environment.


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House panel reviews Freedom to Read Act in dramatic hearing