Senate Education Committee Fails to Protect Children

Senator Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh (R-Yucaipa) today announced that the Senate Education Committee failed to advance a measure that would protect our kids and provide guidance for school libraries. The measure failed 2-3. Senate Bill 1435 updates statewide standards for local school libraries by bringing California Education Code into alignment with Penal Code section 313 addressing and defining harmful matter, while providing flexibility to local school boards to accommodate local contemporary standards in determining what is harmful to students.

“If these guidelines are good enough to protect kids outside of school, then it should be reasonable and good enough to protect our kids within our schools. SB 1435 is not about censorship. It is about updating state library content for the first time in 30 years,” said Senator Ochoa Bogh. “I am extremely disappointed with my colleagues for failing to take a stand to protect our youngest and therefore most vulnerable youth and set expectations for our schools libraries.”

“Setting guidelines to screen out obscene material from our public school classrooms and libraries has the potential to provide more light and less heat for our local school boards. If the Legislature feels like SB 1435 goes too far, they should be asked, ‘Where should the line be drawn on obscene material for our young children’s taxpayer-funded education?’” – Lance Christensen, VP of Education Policy and Government Affairs, California Policy Center

“It’s absolutely reprehensible that California Democrats don’t want to protect students grades 8 and below from unfettered access to obscene materials shelved at our schools. It’s no wonder more and more parents are opting to enroll their children into private schools or homeschool. It’s the antithesis of a ‘safe space’ to permit children to read books that describe how to find a stranger online to engage in sexual activities.” – Erin Friday, Esq., Co-Lead Our Duty

“This bill shouldn’t be killed because the protection of children should always take paramount. You should support this bill because it will help protect children from things that will kill their innocence. If kids knew what adults did, then they’re no longer kids. Supporting this bill means keeping our children safe.” –Dalia Shehata, TV Show host, Logos TV

California Education Code guides the processes for the adoption of instruction and instructional materials. Existing law prohibits instruction that is discriminatory on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, or sexual orientation, and prohibits local school boards from adopting textbooks that adversely reflect upon these protected characteristics. School boards are also encouraged to include inclusive or diverse perspectives as part of their instructional materials.

Existing law allows for the adoption of textbooks and instructional materials; however, the law is generally silent pertaining to materials and books available in school libraries. Last updated in 1990, Education Code section 18111 states: “a governing board of any school district may exclude from schools and school libraries all books, publications, or papers that are of a sectarian, partisan, or denominational character.” This code section is loosely based on US Supreme Court precedent in Island Trees School District v. Pico (1982), which provided unclear guidance as to prohibiting materials from schools simply because they runs counter to a person’s religious or partisan views.

The California Department of Education recommends that each local governing board adopt a literature selection process, recognizing that many of the existing policies are based on the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. However, the Library Bill of Rights only reaffirms US Supreme Court precedent that books that offer differing views on partisan issues or religion should be available in libraries.

Penal Code section 313’s definition for “harmful matter” was updated in 1995, after California updated the Education Code to establish standards for religious or partisan materials in schools in 1990. Penal Code section 313 defines harmful matter as any printed or written material, recording, or image that depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

Although there are laws pertaining to the adoption of textbooks and instructional materials available to schools and classrooms, there is a lack of state guidelines specific for school libraries.

Books have regularly been called into question when they have been found to contain material that is harmful to children. However, there are a lack of state standards and guidelines available to school district officials who have not developed their own policies.

The United States Supreme Court in Miller v. California (1973) 413 U.S. 15 found that obscene, indecent, and profane material is not protected under the First Amendment, and the Federal Communications Commission prohibits obscene, indecent, and profane content from being broadcast on the radio or television, in accordance with section 1464 of Title 18 of the United States Code.

The City of Santa Barbara passed an ordinance that required that blinders be placed in front of materials displayed in public that are considered “harmful matter,” as defined by Penal Code section 313. In Berry v City of Santa Barbara (1995), the ordinance was deemed constitutional, declaring that the Supreme Court has consistently held that states and municipalities have a compelling interest in protecting the welfare of minors and, specifically, in preventing minors from gaining access to materials deemed obscene to them. It was found that the ordinance did not violate the free speech and press provisions of the First Amendment. To quote the California Court of Appeals, “We have recognized that there is a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors. This interest extends to shielding minors from the influence of literature that is not obscene by adult standards. … This pronouncement from the United States Supreme Court certainly gives the California Legislature and local government the constitutional power to enact laws designed to keep harmful matter away from minors.”

When books are presented during a school board meeting to be considered for removal, the materials are sometimes censored or unable to be read aloud for the safety of the viewing audience due these existing federal regulations. Yet, these books can be found in California school libraries, available for check out by children without their parents (or guardians) ever knowing. It is in the best interest of our students that the California Legislature updates state education guidelines to align with Penal Code section 313 to ensure that local schools protect children from accessing harmful matter in school libraries that even the federal government considers too obscene for adults to view or hear on television and radio.

California’s Penal Code has been updated since these federal actions that protect audiences from what is considered harmful matter, and the Education Code should align with these new standards for harmful matter in the context of school libraries.

SB 1435 was granted reconsideration and could be presented again at a future date.