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In Washington, GOP senators grill Alexi Giannoulias over Illinois anti-book-ban law

Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, September 13, 2023  |  Article  |  Rick Pearson

A new Illinois law that seeks to deter book bans and restrictions in public schools and libraries came under the scrutiny of a U.S. Senate panel Tuesday during a hearing that revealed stark partisan divisions over education and parental responsibility while also raising questions about the federal role in what is traditionally an area of local control.

Democratic Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who championed the law, was questioned by the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who initially sought to change the subject of the hearing to immigration policy under President Joe Biden before returning to the issue of book policy.

“What is our role here? What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to take over every school board in the country and veto their decisions about what books go into public schools?” Graham asked.

“Am I supposed to, as a United States senator, take over the libraries across this country and be the final say of what goes in a library? I hope not. I think not,” Graham said. “So this is an important hearing in this regard: It shows the difference of the two parties on this issue.”

Giannoulias said Illinois’ first in the nation law, which makes public libraries ineligible for state grants if they restrict or ban materials because of “partisan or doctrinal” disapproval, could become a template for legislation in other states. The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, also requires public libraries to adopt the American Library Association’s bill of rights.

“Tragically, our libraries have become the thunderdomes of controversy and strife across our nation, the likes of which have never been seen before. These radical attacks on our libraries have divided our communities and our librarians have been threatened and intimidated for simply doing their jobs,” said Giannoulias, whose office also makes him state librarian.

“This ‘right-to-read’ legislation will help remove the pressure that libraries have tragically had to endure over the last couple of years,” he said. “This legislation is important because both the concept and practice of banning books contradicts the very essence of what our country stands for and what our democracy was founded on. It also defines what education is all about: Teaching our children to think for themselves.”

In addition to warning of threats made to librarians, Giannoulias told senators that several libraries in the Chicago suburbs were forced to close a few weeks ago due to bomb threats. Only hours after his testimony, it happened again, with bomb threats reportedly made to the Harold Washington Public Library in Chicago and to libraries in Addison, Aurora, Evanston, Hanover Park, Schaumburg and Streamwood.

In signing the anti-book ban bill in June, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said there were 67 attempts to ban books in the state last year, based on figures from the Chicago-based American Library Association. There were 1,477 instances of books being banned nationwide during the first half of the 2022-23 school year, affecting 874 individual titles, according to PEN America, a group that advocates for free expression in literature.

The legislation moved ahead this spring after sometimes contentious and ostensibly nonpartisan local school and library board races in Illinois featured efforts by conservative slates, sometimes with help from national groups, to push an agenda focused on removing controversial materials. The state Democratic Party funded efforts to defeat those candidates and most were rebuffed by voters.

Democrats and Republicans at Tuesday’s hearing agreed that children should not be able to obtain age-inappropriate materials. But Republicans said parents have a right to speak out and represent community standards in arguing to remove controversial books. They also contended no books were being “banned” because they are still available in the public marketplace.

Nicole Neily, a Republican witness from Arlington, Virginia, and president of Parents Defending Education, contended her group and others challenging books and library materials were being victimized.

“Every time a parent is falsely accused of wanting to ban a book because of reasonable concerns about subject matter appropriateness, neighbors are pitted against each other based on dishonest premises,” Neily said. “This is a deliberate attempt to demonize parents and to chill both their speech and activism.”

Senior U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chairs the Judiciary Committee and led the hearing, noted that specific states have sought to remove books involving race or sexual identity under threat of fine or imprisonment. He said no one is advocating making sexually explicit material available to young children and said any argument to the contrary served as “a distraction from the real challenge.”

“I understand and respect that parents may choose to limit what their children read, especially at younger ages,” Durbin said. “But no parent should have the right to tell another parent’s child what they can and cannot read in school or at home. Every student deserves access to books that reflect their experiences and help them better understand who they are.”

Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, after reading sexually graphic portions of two books, asked Giannoulias exactly what he was advocating for.

“Who gets to decide and all I’ve heard is the librarians and the parents have nothing to do with it,” Kennedy said. “And if that’s your response, what planet did you just parachute in from? Or what country, more appropriately? This is not China.”

“We are advocating for parents, random parents, not to have the ability under the guise of keeping kids safe to try and challenge the worldview of every single manner on these issues,” Giannoulias said in response. “Senator, with all due respect, parents absolutely have a say.

Kennedy then accused Giannoulias of political grandstanding.

“I understand this is good for your politics back home,” the senator said, prompting Giannoulias to respond, “It’s got nothing to do with my politics. My bill has passed.”

Shortly after the committee adjourned, Giannoulias’ political team sent out a fundraising appeal to supporters asking, “Will you rush a donation right now to take a stand against extreme book bans?”