State senator moves to protect PA libraries

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Earlier this summer, on July 10, PA State Senator Amanda Cappelletti (D-Dist. 17) announced plans to introduce legislation in PA’s General Assembly to protect Pennsylvania public and school libraries. Cappelletti, whose district includes towns such as Norristown and Ardmore, explained to PGN, “I’m hoping to protect the right to read, which is under threat in Pennsylvania.”

Cappelletti’s bill, still in its formative stage, will follow the path laid out by similar legislation recently passed in Illinois.

Cappelletti’s announcement was made by way of sending out to the entire PA Senate what is called a co-sponsorship memorandum, which details her argument and lays out what she intends her bill to mandate. It also serves as a call for co-sponsors for the prospective legislation.

The memorandum reads, in its entirety: “The American Library Association has documented the highest number of attempted book bans last year since it began compiling data more than 20 years ago. Pennsylvania ranks among the worst states in book banning efforts, where there were 56 attempts to ban 302 unique titles. Of those titles, the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community or be and about Black, Indigenous, and people of color.

“As libraries and librarians nationwide face unprecedented censorship of books and resources, Illinois recently became the first state to prevent publicly-funded institutions from banning books and other materials. Pennsylvania should follow closely behind.

“The idea of banning books is a direct contradiction to First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press, integral elements of democracy. Americans have a right to explore and engage with differing perspectives to form their own views. Public libraries are places where young people should be able to learn about themselves and people who are different from them, not denied access to the diverse perspectives that books and art offer us all.

“Like the Illinois law, my legislation will require Pennsylvania’s State Librarian and our local libraries to: 1) adopt the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states that materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval; and to 2) develop a written statement that prohibits the local library from banning books or other materials. Libraries that do not comply will be denied state funding.

“This is not a partisan issue. Polling conducted by bipartisan research firms in 2022 showed that voters across the political spectrum oppose book bans and have confidence in libraries to make good decisions about their collections.

“Please join me in ensuring Pennsylvania upholds our cherished Constitutional protections against government censorship in our libraries.”

Seven senators, all Democrats, have at this point signed on as co-sponsors of the prospective legislation. They are: Nikil Saval (Dist. 1, which represents Philadelphia), Wayne Fontana (Dist. 42), Art Haywood (Dist. 4). Carolyn Comitta (Dist. 19), John Kane (Dist. 9), Maria Collett (Dist. 12) and Katie Muth (Dist. 44).

Cappelletti plans to introduce the bill when the General Assembly convenes for its fall session in September. During the summer break, the senator and her colleagues will be working on the necessary legislative language.

Cappelletti’s bill will, in many respects, parallel a similar Right to Read bill introduced earlier this year. That bill, HB1374, focuses on protecting school libraries from the threat of book bans and was put forth by State Reps. Christopher Rabb, Carol Hill-Evans, Tarah Probst and Ismail Smith-Wade-El.

HB1374 mandates that “a board may not remove or restrict access to printed or audiovisual material available in school libraries solely on the basis of the presence of characters, literary elements, themes, symbols or other literary content relating to protected classes or protected characteristics.”

Following standard procedural protocols, HB1374 was referred to the House’s education committee. Cappelletti’s bill will doubtless follow a similar protocol and be referred to the Senate’s education committee.

Cappelletti has not yet coordinated with the House bill’s sponsors, but says she will touch bases with them as matters proceed.

The response to Cappelletti’s memorandum from Pennsylvania Republicans has been predictable. The senator says that, while the Assembly’s Republican senators have been mostly quiet, conservative comments on social media have been swift and vehement.

For example, the PA Senate Republican Campaign Committee posted on Twitter the following comments: “Amanda Cappelletti’s latest fundraising email brags about trying to keep sexually explicit materials in our schools. Cappelletti’s agenda might be popular with the most radical wing of her party, but her and Senate Democrats are out of touch with Pennsylvania.”

Cappelletti counters such allegations of being “out of touch” by pointing out that her office has received hundreds of supportive emails from librarians, educators and concerned citizens, thanking her for her efforts, and urging her to continue the fight to protect the state’s public and school libraries from right-wing censorship.In a recent story in the Bucks County Beacon, Cappelletti succinctly addresses the bottom line of the issue at hand. She said, “When we look through history, the people who have banned books, who have burned books, have never ended up on the right side of history.”

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