By Madi Blair
A year after it was enacted, Georgia’s so-called “book banning” law is leading to confusion and censorship in our schools.
The law, passed in April 2022 as Senate Bill 226, allows parents and guardians to submit complaints about the content of “material” in their children’s textbooks and in school and classroom libraries.
Georgia public schools now must have a complaint resolution policy that allows challenges to material believed to be “harmful to minors,” defined by the law as sexual content appealing to the “prurient, shameful, or morbid interest of minors,” which lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.” This definition mirrors the U.S. Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity.
When a parent or guardian submits a written complaint about school material, the school principal has seven days to investigate whether the material is harmful to minors. The decision of whether to remove or restrict student access to the challenged material is left exclusively to the principal, although the school board may conduct a review.
The Georgia Department of Education does not give principals any guidance for determining whether material meets the definition of “harmful to minors,” and it offers no concrete steps for handling complaints. The department’s model complaint resolution policy simply restates the law’s requirements.
The law undermines students’ constitutional right to receive information. In the 1982 case of Island Trees School District v. Pico, the Supreme Court noted that school libraries afford students “an opportunity at self-education and individual enrichment” and that public school boards are not free to restrict student access to library books “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.” In the words of the Court, “the First Amendment rights of students may be directly and sharply implicated by the removal of books from the shelves of a school library.” Yet Georgia now empowers any parent to initiate a process that does exactly that.
Another year-old Georgia law only makes matters worse. SB 377, also referred to as Georgia’s “divisive concepts” bill, regulates whether and how teachers can discuss topics like race and ethnicity in the classroom. Both laws deprive students of their First Amendment right to receive information, and the combination has created uncertainty and normalized censorship.
Nan Brown, coordinator of the Georgia Library Media Association’s advocacy team, reports that Georgia teachers have begun censoring both what they say to students and what materials they keep in their classrooms. Some teachers have limited or altogether avoided discussing topics like the Civil War or figures like Martin Luther King Jr. for fear of putting their jobs at risk, Brown said.
In the just-ended Georgia General Assembly session, lawmakers considered encouraging even more censorship in our schools. Senate Bill 154 would have made school librarians criminally liable for distributing “harmful materials” to minors. Fortunately, the bill did not pass this year. But it could reappear in 2024.
What would such a law mean for Georgia schools? To see the damage it could do, we need only look one state over.
In 2017, Florida’s Legislature passed a law (House Bill 989) that was a precursor to Georgia’s SB 226. Florida’s law lacks detailed guidance for resolving complaints, leading to significant uncertainty among educators about what books they can have in their classrooms, paving the way for self-censorship by teachers that deprives students of their First Amendment right to receive information.
Last year, the Florida lawmakers — in addition to passing their own “divisive concepts” law — passed HB 1467, which requires all books in public school media centers, as well as any books assigned or recommended by teachers, be pre-approved as content-appropriate by the school’s media specialist. A public educator who allows students access to unapproved materials may be subject to felony prosecution.
Schools are unequipped to shoulder the administrative burden of this year-old law. For example, in Duval County, Florida, a mere 54 media specialists are responsible for vetting 1.6 million titles in the county’s 200 schools. Fear of criminal consequences and a backlog of classroom materials waiting to be reviewed has led Florida teachers to box up and donate entire classroom libraries.
SB 154 would have similar consequences in Georgia. The proposal — which remains on file for the 2024 General Assembly session — would expose educators to potential arrest and prosecution for simply having books and resources in their classrooms, without any real, practicable guidance on which materials are allowed and which are not.
Georgia must learn from the mistakes we’ve already made by following in Florida’s unconstitutional footsteps. Criminalizing teachers’ well-intentioned conduct and impeding students’ access to educational information would put us on a path to even more censorship in our schools.
Madi Blair is a second-year law student at the University of Georgia. She is currently working with the School of Law’s First Amendment Clinic, which provides legal representation and client advocacy on a variety of media law and First Amendment issues.
Explore the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s concerns about censorship and book banning: Georgia lawmakers want to take the ‘local’ out of our libraries.