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Censorship

Freedom to Read Act Reintroduced in New Jersey

Kelly Jensen

Editor

Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

This year, we’re seeing a groundswell of new bills across the country aimed at curbing book bans. Following legislation introduced in states like Massachusetts, Colorado, Kansas, and New Mexico, legislators in New Jersey introduced a newly revised Freedom to Read Act into the Senate. Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) sponsored the bill.

Senate Bill 2421 would establish several things. First, it would protect the right to read in libraries across the state. This comes through the requirement that every board of education in the state develop a policy regarding the materials in school libraries. While every school board will have the right to develop their own policy, it would require several provisions to protect access to a wide range of materials, including the understanding that those materials must represent the entirety of the school–not just the youngest within it. School libraries would not be allowed to exclude materials because of the background of those who have written the material or the backgrounds of those represented within it. Inclusivity and diversity would be enshrine in these policies as essential.

The bill would further require school boards to establish and codify how materials are challenged in the library. Challenges to material would be limited to those who have a vested interest in the institution, such as educators, students, or parents in the district. Challenged materials would remain on shelves throughout the process, and the makeup of the team reviewing materials would include educators, administrators, and librarians.

New Jersey’s state librarian would be tasked with developing model collection and challenge policies that school boards could adapt. These would be created in collaboration with the New Jersey Library Association.

Public libraries would also need to develop and adapt collection and challenge policies governing their collections.

A key part of the Freedom to Read Act would protect library workers and educators in New Jersey schools. Not only would they be protected from lawsuits while engaging in activities related to their job–including acquisition and review of materials–but they would “have a civil cause of action for emotional distress, defamation, libel, slander, damage to reputation, or any other relevant tort, against any person who harasses the school library media specialist or any other teaching staff member for complying with the provisions of those sections.”

This portion of the bill directly addresses some of the harassment being received by school librarians in the state, including Martha Hickson. Hickson has been targeted by the husband of a newly elected school board member for her work against book bans in recent months, though she has been subject to such harassment for several years as book banners have targeted North Hunterdon-Voorhees School District.

“As parents, educators, administrators, and school board members, we stand united against prejudices, and politically motivated culture wars that target the right to read and access to education and information,” explained the New Jersey Library Association, the New Jersey School Library Association and the New Jersey Education Association said in a statement. They are all in support of the legislation.

This is not the first Freedom to Read bill introduced in New Jersey. A similar, though less thorough, bill was introduced last legislative session. It died in committee, but given the success of other states like Illinois passing anti-book ban bills, there is optimism this time around.

“It’s unbelievable that this is 2024 and we are again talking about this,” Zwicker said to library supporters who gathered at Hunterdon last week in anticipation of the school board meeting. That meeting was rescheduled for today, January 30, at 7 p.m. “This right here is going to be the gold standard for the whole country.” 

Despite its status as a “blue state,” New Jersey has been far from immune to book bans. As noted above, librarians like Hickson have become targets and have found themselves fearing for their lives. But Hickson and North Hunterdon-Voorhees School District are far from alone. The American Library Association recorded 10 attempts to restrict access to books in New Jersey between January and August 2023 alone, with 23 book titles challenged. This placed the state among the middle percentage for censorship attempts in this time frame. PEN America recorded three book bans in school districts during the 2022-2023 school year. Censorship attempts happened in institutions such as Glen Ridge Public Library, Northern Valley Regional High School District, Lower Township Elementary, Wayne Public Library, and more state-wide, with at least 30 documented and recorded between 2021 and 2023.

Senate Bill 2421 was sent to the Senate Education Committee on January 29. If you are a New Jersey resident, take 10 minutes to write your representatives in support of the bill. You have a wealth of statistics at your fingertips, including those found in the recent Book Riot x Every Library Institute research about how much libraries are supported by their communities.