NH book banning bill passes Senate with all-Republican support

Margie Cullen
Portsmouth Herald

CONCORD — A bill that would change the process for banning books in New Hampshire schools, opposed by author Jodi Picoult, passed the state Senate on Friday.

Senate Bill 523, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, would prohibit minors from accessing materials that are “obscene or harmful” in schools and would create a procedure for removal and cause of action. It passed 14-10 in a party-line vote with all 14 Republicans voting in support of the bill.

Sen. Kevin Avard, R-Nashua, speaks in favor of his bill that would shift the power over banning books in New Hampshire schools.

Currently, local school boards have oversight of book complaints, which are often handled by school administrators under local school district policies. But under this bill, parents unhappy with the school board’s decision could appeal to the seven-member State Board of Education, giving that board the ultimate decision about which books are inappropriate for students in New Hampshire.

The bill is raising concerns about local control and who should have the power to decide what constitutes appropriate content for children.

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Picoult, for example, said that her book "Nineteen Minutes" has been banned frequently due to the word “erection,” not the book’s main subject matter of school shootings and the effects of bullying.

“What does it say about our world when “keeping children safe” means banning a book about school shootings … but not regulating the guns that cause those real-life shootings?” she wrote in an opinion column.

Amy Manzelli, a Pembroke mother of a transgender daughter, said the law is a “backdoor strategy to ban LGBTQ content from our schools,” in her testimony against the bill in late January. 

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On the Senate floor Friday, Republican senators said the bill is not about banning books, but listening to parents.

“This is just another time where we need to pass a law for parents to be heard,” said Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry. She said that in “many cases,” parents were "not allowed" to speak at their local School Board meetings.

“Senate Bill 523 does not ban books. That cannot be emphasized. Again, we don't have a list of books here that we're going through, redlining books, no, no, no. That's not our job,” she said.

Sen. Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton, said that the bill “strictly establishes a statewide standard process in which schools can review objected material.”

Sen. Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst, said a single complaint should not determine the accessibility of a certain material for the rest of the school community.

“It chips away at the very core of our democracy,” Chandley said. “While parents certainly have responsibility to consider appropriateness for their children, why on earth should a single individual make that decision for everyone else's child?” She added that the bill ignores the expertise and dedication of school professionals, like librarians and teachers.

A near-identical bill in the House, HB1419, failed to pass.

SB 523 must now go to the Finance Committee before heading back to the Senate floor. It must pass there by April 11 to cross over to the House.