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Library ‘bill of rights’ proposal draws opposition

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(The Center Square) – Preventing New Jersey public schools and libraries from keeping controversial titles off the shelves is in a proposal being rejected by Republicans.

The lawmakers say it oversteps parents’ concerns.

A bill working its way through the state Assembly would ban the censorship of any book for “partisan or doctrinal” reasons and would require the libraries to adopt the American Library Association’s “library bill of rights,” or a similar policy.

It would also authorize the state treasurer to withhold funding from public schools or libraries that don’t comply with the bill of rights by restricting access to books or other resource materials.

“This is about preventing censorship and keeping intolerance and hatred from being infused into public libraries in New Jersey,” state Sen. Andrew Zwicker, D-South Brunswick, the bill’s primary sponsor, said in a statement. “Ideas and information are meant to be discussed and debated in a society that respects the right of free expression and values the pursuit of knowledge.”

But Republicans are criticizing the proposal, saying it would override parental rights and deprive schools of much-needed funding.

Senate Republican Minority Leader Anthony Bucco said the legislation “oversteps the role that parents, and local school boards have in reviewing and approving the kinds of materials that are appropriate for their students to consume.”

“State government should not be dictating how schools and local public libraries operate,” he said in a statement. “We’re talking about a bill that would provide immunity to people who violate the New Jersey Criminal Justice Code when we should be focused on addressing our massive teacher shortage, helping students with the immense learning loss from the pandemic, and restoring funding cuts that Democrats made to schools across New Jersey.”

Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Little Silver, ripped the plan for stripping oversight from local school boards and parents, calling the “Freedom to Read” bill the “antithesis of freedom.”

“This attempt by Democrats to trick New Jerseyans into supporting legislation that would open the door to a plethora of unintended consequences is irresponsible at best,” he said.

Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Montville, said the legislation would establish a “dangerous precedent that removes oversight from the communities and gives more power to state officials who put politics over people.”

“Legislation like this does nothing but further divide our state in a battle over egos when we should be looking for pragmatic ways to serve the people and work with our local municipalities for the best possible outcome for everyone, especially our kids,” he said.

The proposal comes in response to an uptick in the number of book “challenges” from parents and groups in New Jersey who are upset about what they view as inappropriate content on sexuality and racism for younger readers. The fights are playing out in schools and public libraries, with critics pushing the materials to be removed.

New Jersey isn’t the only state wrestling with the issue, according to the American Library Association, which says the number of challenged books has skyrocketed nationwide in recent years. Between 2020 and 2021, documented book challenges rose from 273 to 1,597 – a more than 400% increase, according to the association.

Among the top titles identified in challenges were homosexual and gender-themed works, according to the association, including “Jay’s Gay Agenda” by Jason June and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe.

Many of the challenges are being made by parents backed by conservative groups pushing back against what they see as an inappropriate focus on social issues and emotional learning over a traditional education, and the introduction of sexually explicit books in middle and high school libraries.

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