PHOENIX — Arizona public schools this week introduced a new ban on books containing pornography, with critics worried that self-censorship will put further pressure on already overburdened teachers.
“We’re very concerned about the impact this will have on teachers and students trying to access new materials that reflect their perspectives and materials that have been used in the classroom for a long time,” said Gaelle Esposito, Arizona lobbyist, working on education policy, LGBTQ+ rights and other progressive issues.
“It is not clear what the consequences will be for teachers who violate the regulations and what they may face. There are still concerns that this will have a chilling effect on teachers and libraries because of the vague language, as they will have books on their shelves.”
House Bill 2495, signed into law by Governor Doug Ducey in July, prohibits public schools from using any material – text, audio or video – including descriptions of “sexual acts,” “sexual excitement,” “ultimate sexual acts” .
The law allows exceptions for material of “serious” educational, literary, artistic, political or scientific value. But even then, parental consent is required for every book or book shared with students. If parental consent is not given, the school must provide alternative homework for the parent’s child.
The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Jack Hoffman (R-Queen Creek), argued that it’s not about banned books at all.
“Most importantly, this bill is about protecting children from pornography,” Hoffman told the Senate Education Committee in March, adding that it does not prohibit teaching anatomy or biology.
“We need them to learn maths, reading, writing and other very important educational material that will help them prepare for a vibrant and prosperous future without worrying about pornography.”
Hoffman did not respond to Cronkite News’ request for comment.
The law goes into effect on Saturday, but it’s unclear how it will work in practice – for example, who will patrol material and contact parents. Advocates for teachers worry about wider implications for stressed-out educators.
Jeanne Casteen, executive director of Secular AZ and a former teacher of English, arts and literature, said the restrictions will exacerbate the state’s teacher retention problems as educators “find Arizona’s working and learning conditions unsustainable” “.
“In Arizona, we’re pushing teachers out of the profession,” she said. “We train them here and then export our best and brightest to other states because we’ve always seen teachers as they’re not their content experts.”
Officials from several Arizona school districts, including the Mesa Public Schools, and the Arizona Department of Education did not immediately respond to messages asking for details on how the law would be enforced.
Book bans are on the rise nationwide, according to PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing literature and defending free speech. From July 2021 to June 2022, the organization tracked 2,532 instances of books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique titles.
More than 139 additional bans have been enacted since June, and educators fighting back are facing consequences. A school teacher in Oklahoma resigned after hanging a banned sign in her classroom library that read “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.”
According to PEN America, 41 percent of the books questioned nationwide dealt with LGBTQ+ topics, while 40 percent contained protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color, leading some to believe that censorship is at an all-time high.
Arizona lobbyist Esposito noted that the original version of HB 2495 included specific restrictions on material containing homosexual-related content.
“That in itself shows the intent here,” she said. “They want to censor discussions of different viewpoints and use these extreme talking points to justify it.”
Titles that could be challenged include Alice Walker’s “Purple,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about the life journey of an African-American girl raped by her father, and Laura Esquivel, Kastin said. “Water Like Chocolate,” whose female characters are navigating their sexuality.
Kastin said her students love novels like these because they resonate with the characters.
“By sharing these with students, they can see themselves and empathize with the characters’ experiences and situations in the novel, and that’s when the magic really happens.”
When Casteen once assigned Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why Caged Birds Sing,” some of her students realized their experiences were similar to the sexual assault described by the protagonist and sought help from a trusted adult.
Kastin called Arizona’s new law “a whitewash on literature.”
“It’s not fair to our students of color or even our LGBTQ+ students because a lot of books written by LGBTQ+ authors get published,” she said. “We know that these children have much higher rates of self-harm and suicide. Taking books from these children puts them at greater risk.
“Instead of focusing on the real problems facing Arizona teachers, students and working-class families, we’re working on solving problems that don’t exist.”