Madison Markham contributed research to this roundup.

Bills fueling book bans and censorship in K-12 schools have proliferated since 2021, and the current legislative session is no exception. Waves of bills with anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, a concerted effort to broaden and harden “obscenity” laws, and the removal of local control have characterized an intensifying legislative movement to suppress expression and literature in schools and libraries. 

Below is our analysis of three bills that reflect some of the trends we’re seeing in state legislatures:

Don’t Say Gay in Alabama either

Alabama has proposed to be the seventh state to adopt a “Don’t Say Gay” style law with HB 130, which would prohibit instruction related to gender identity or sexual orientation all the way through twelfth grade. 

The legislature passed a law in 2022 to prohibit such instruction through fifth grade “in accordance with state standards.” The board of education, however, never updated the state standards, which meant that the “Don’t Say Gay” clause was never implemented. Now, HB 130 would correct this ambiguity, removing the board of education from the equation and mandating an explicit ban through twelfth grade. 

In other states, similar bans on instruction related to gender and sexuality have led to the removal of books, including And Tango Makes Three, a picture book about the true story of two male penguins who raise a chick together, and Call Me Max, a book about a child who realizes that he’s trans. Florida’s law has caused widespread confusion and self-censorship as teachers question what they are allowed to say or display in their classrooms.

If passed, Alabama would join several states with their own ‘Don’t Say Gay’ laws: Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, North Carolina, and, of course, Florida. In doing so, we can predict that picture books about gay penguins and Pride Month celebrations will likely become verboten in Alabama classrooms.

Threats of jail time for educators and librarians 

Labeling material as “obscene” or “pornographic” in order to ban it is a tactic that far predates the current movement to ban books – but that doesn’t mean it has stopped being effective. 

That’s what lawmakers in West Virginia seem to be hoping for with HB 4654, which passed the House in February. The bill would remove existing exemptions for employees of schools, museums, and public libraries from being criminally charged with distributing “obscene” materials to minors. As EveryLibrary explained in a policy paper last year, such exemptions have existed in some form since the early 1960s and can be found in 44 states. In rolling those protections back, this new bill would mean that providing material deemed “obscene” to a minor – via a library book or an art history assignment, for example – could result in up to five years in prison. 

Legislation like HB 4654 poses a threat because of the risk that the legal definitions of “obscenity” will be misunderstood or misapplied. This potential for misapplication has made space for attempts by lawmakers to label any works related to LGBTQ+ identities or sexual health as obscene. And when the exemptions for educators are removed from state statutes, librarians and teachers are almost guaranteed to self-censor in order to avoid being branded a felon for doing their jobs. Such is the case in Missouri, where a similar law has resulted in bans of books like Maus and Gender Queer and librarians have admitted to self censoring out of fear. 

If West Virginia passes this bill, it will join a sorry list of states including Tennessee and Montana in chilling education and intimidating teachers and librarians into censoring books, content, and other education opportunities.

Accelerating book bans through statewide mandates 

A key element of the legislative push to undermine public education have been bills that would make it easier or more efficient to ban books. This year in Utah, HB 29 seeks to make the book banning process so painless, it only takes three challengers to ban a book from the entire state. 

Under the proposed bill, if three school districts determine that a book or instructional material is “objective sensitive material,” every school district in the state must remove it from student access. This applies even if a school district has already determined that the material is acceptable, or if students, parents, and teachers wish to keep it available locally. 

That the objection process is designed for material deemed to be “obscene” makes it all the more troubling, given the systematic misapplications of the term. Based on bans that have already occurred in Utah, books by Sarah J. Maas, Ellen Hopkins, and Maia Kobabe could be prohibited statewide under this proposal. 

Efforts to mandate statewide bans have also been seen in Tennessee, where provision similar to the Utah bill became law in 2021, and in Florida, where the state maintains a list of challenged material for school districts to consult when acquiring new books or materials. And in South Carolina, the State Board of Education recently passed a resolution leaving decisions on book challenges to the state rather than district school boards. This means that any book challenged in a public school may be at risk of being banned statewide.  

It’s unclear at this point whether Governor Cox will sign the Utah bill into law, but in the meantime, Let Utah Read has organized a vigorous campaign urging him to veto it.