Skip to main content

Millcreek Journal

Gov. Cox signs HB29 bill into law making it easier for books to be banned statewide in Utah

Apr 09, 2024 12:48PM ● By Lizzie Walje

After passing through multiple legislative sessions, bill HB29 has officially been signed into law. It will make it substantially easier for books to be banned at the statewide level. (Stock photo)

As predicted, Utah’s HB29 bill has officially been signed into law by Gov. Spencer Cox. Despite garnering widespread support in its previous sessions by fellow lawmakers, the bill, which will make it easier for books to be banned at the statewide level, has been heavily contested by some of Utah’s largest education and reading organizations.

In February, prior to Cox’s March signing of HB29, Let Utah Read, a coalition comprised of Utah educators, parents, and librarians penned an open letter to the governor urging him to exercise his veto power.  

“We implore you to wield your veto power against this bill, as it is a looming threat to the vibrant tapestry of ideas that should adorn our educational landscape,” the letter stated. Subsequently, the letter went on to explain that signing the bill would “stifle the voices of diverse authors, casting a chilling shadow over the sanctity of our First Amendment rights.” 

Not only did the letter criticize the practice of banning books, but it also claimed that the very nature of HB29 undercuts essential freedoms, in favor of censorship. 

“At its heart, HB29 represents a dangerous encroachment on our fundamental freedoms. It seeks to muzzle the voices of dissent and erase the invaluable contributions of authors whose works have enriched the educational journey of countless students over the years.”

The letter was signed by leaders of several organizations including the Utah chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Utah chapter of PEN America, national library advocacy group EveryLibrary, the Utah Library Association, and the Utah Educational Library Media Association. 

The bill in question, HB29, states that a book can be removed from all of Utah’s public schools statewide if at least three school districts (or at least two school districts and five charter schools) within the state determined it contained “objective sensitive material”. Utah law defines this material as inherently pornographic or otherwise indecent that holds no “literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors”.

The bill does, however, offer one caveat. If the necessary threshold is met, the Utah State Board of Education could still potentially reverse the decision and reinstate the book in question statewide. It would require that the board meet within 60 days of the decision. However, if a hearing fails to occur, the removal will stand. And, even if the board does reverse the decision at the state level, the districts and charter schools that requested its removal can still opt to withhold it from their shelves.

The final version of the bill would also allow local school board members to challenge books, a novel development, as current law dictates that only people affiliated with a school or school district — but who are not elected officials — can challenge materials. 

Throughout HB29’s legislative journey, alternative bills and plans have been floated. Most notably, Democratic State Sen. Kathleen Riebe proposed an alternative plan during last November’s interim legislative session. Per Riebe’s idea, books could be removed statewide if a variable number of districts that represent at least 40% of Utah’s student population chose to do so.

Aside from lawmakers, the general public’s reaction has been inevitably mixed with many local booksellers offering their unique perspectives.

A notable voice among them is Kaitlyn Mahoney, owner of Under the Umbrella Bookstore in Salt Lake City, a bookstore that specializes in sharing stories from LGBTQ perspectives, more specifically, amplifying the voices of people of color. 

Back in February Mahoney was one of over 100 people who came together to stage a read-in at the state Capitol. This event was hosted by Let Utah Read, with the intention of pushing back on what they stated was HB29’s restrictive nature. 

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, who has been a vocal supporter of HB29, previously explained that the bill serves a critical purpose, in that it shields children from pornographic material. He further explained that the bill isn’t trying to ban books based solely off of the mention of a specific sexuality, but content that is graphic in nature.

"Illicit pornography is often graphic, X-rated descriptions or depictions of sexual acts that are designed to arouse and excite people. We're not trying to ban books simply because sexuality is mentioned or a sexual encounter is briefly described," Weiler said.

But opponents of the bill say that many of the books being challenged, and subsequently removed from shelves, are often well respected and award-winning books, they just explore important ideas around topical subjects like race and gender. To further illustrate this point, opponents have called into question content that is found in The Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Quaran. Weiler called these challenges an attempt to “make a mockery” of the legislation. 

Back in 2021, Gov. Spencer Cox himself seemed to be singing a different tune. At a monthly PBS Utah news conference that took place in November 2021, Cox explained that: "Any student of history knows that banning books never ends up well. Now it's one thing again to say, 'This isn't age appropriate,' and it's another thing to say, 'Hey we're making your kids read this book,' right? ... But just having a book available for kids who maybe see things differently or who are interested in that, let's just be cautious out there.”

The governor continued on, saying, “there are probably some books that shouldn't be in our schools. But let's be thoughtful about it. Let’s take a step back, take a deep breath and make sure that we're not doing something we’ll regret. I think that books should be appropriate for grade levels. Explicit language, I certainly have some concerns about. But we really should pump the brakes on the idea of getting rid of books.”

Regardless of Cox’s previous sentiments, he signed off on HB29, officially making it a pillar of Utah state law. Following his approval, the bill is slated to take effect this summer on July 1. It will apply retroactively to all “objective sensitive materials” removed from student access prior to that date. λ