California lawmakers reject bill to let parents sue schools that don’t ban ‘harmful’ books

California lawmakers recently voted down a bill requiring school boards to ban books with “harmful material” from libraries and classrooms, legislation that would have given parents the ability to sue those that did not comply.

The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday did not advance Senate Bill 1435 from Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Yucaipa. Bill opponents called it an “overreach in what the law is” and a “form of censorship.”

SB 1435 would apply to preschools, transitional kindergartens, kindergartens and grades one through eight. It would require school boards to ban books with content considered “harmful” under California Penal Code 313, which prohibits the material from being distributed to children.

During an exchange with Ochoa Bogh, Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, D-Los Angeles, said she does not “need the state’s guidance to tell me how I feel about what my children are doing.”

“I don’t need the state’s guidance to do that,” she said. “So that is why I’m opposing this bill.”

Penal Code 313 defines content as harmful if it “depicts or describes in a patently offensive way sexual conduct and which, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”

It would require school boards to adopt this standard for books and would allow parents, guardians and school district residents to sue in civil court “after the governing board of the school district’s refusal to remove any harmful matter requested of it,” according to the Education Committee staff report.

The discussion comes as California parents rights activists push school districts to adopt gender notification policies, which would require staff and teachers to inform parents about a change in a student’s name or gender pronoun. Some have also protested LGBTQ student clubs, saying schools were hiding them from parents.

Conservative states around the country have also recently passed laws penalizing school librarians for providing “harmful” books to students.

Ochoa Bogh and said the bill is necessary because “as this material becomes more readily available through social media, movies, books and other digital mediums the state Legislature has been slow to provide the necessary oversight.”

“As a result, these materials have slowly crept into our schools,” she said.

Erin Friday of Our Duty, an anti-transgender organization, testified in favor of SB 1435, reading lines she considered sexually explicit from books she said are available in middle schools.

“If you don’t vote yes on this bill, you will be on record that you believe that children should be exposed to the type of harmful matter that I just presented,” Friday said. “There can be no other interpretation.”

ACLU California Action, the California Teachers Association, Equality California and other groups opposed the bill. Seth Bramble of the California Teachers Association said it “opens the door to removing books from our schools simply because some individuals don’t like the views in those books.

“This bill is about taking books out of our school libraries,” said Bramble, who testified against the bill. “The proposal seeks to fuel fear and distrust in our public school libraries and in our public education system, disrupting the work that teachers do to try and grow the next generation of inventors.”

Lawmakers expressed concerns about the legal liability the bill would create for districts, as well as the subjective nature of the “harmful material” test.

Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, D-Los Angeles, said parents and school district residents already have “the opportunities and systems and structured environments for parents to have this conversation with their school district.”

“This bill proposes to go around that,” Smallwood-Cuevas said.

Committee Chair Josh Newman, D-Fullerton, questioned whether the books Friday discussed are the “exception” and asked whether they justify a new rule.

“I commend you for instigating this conversation today, and for your work prior to it,” Newman said. “I’m going to abstain on the bill, simply because I do believe that there are more problems generated here than the prospective solution.”