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New Jersey weighs plan to fine libraries, schools for banning books

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(The Center Square) — New Jersey public libraries and schools could be fined or lose state aid for removing controversial books from their shelves under a Democratic-sponsored proposal that critics say would trample on parental rights.

The legislation would prevent the censorship of any book for “partisan or doctrinal” reasons. It would require the libraries to adopt the American Library Association’s “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 banning or restricting access to books or other resource materials.

The bill’s primary sponsor, state Sen. Andrew Zwicker, D-South Brunswick, said the proposal is aimed at “preventing censorship and keeping intolerance and hatred from being infused into public libraries in New Jersey.”

“The fact that we are in 2023 and debating whether or not we should be banning books and ideas is just outrageous,” he said. “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.”

Another bill sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Maria Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, argues the state needs to “protect these critical institutions which continue to be instrumental in shaping young minds.”

“Our libraries are a sacred community resource, not a place for careless censorship,” she said. “The materials they offer should not be restricted based on partisan views or revisionist history.”

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 LGBTQ 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.

But New Jersey Republican lawmakers are blasting the proposal to fine libraries and schools, saying it would override parental rights and deprive schools of much-needed funding.

State Sen. Ed Durr, R-Logan, called the proposal “nuts” and said it would “punish schools for listening to the concerns of parents and removing books that contain pornographic material.”

“Parents should be able to say that they don’t believe certain books are age-appropriate for their children’s schools, and school districts should be commended rather than punished for respecting parental rights,” he said in a statement. “This legislation shows just how far Democrats are willing to go to push their gender ideology on our kids.”

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