The Indiana Senate passed a bill this week that will make it nearly impossible for educators and school librarians to defend themselves against accusations of distributing harmful material to minors.
This has sparked both fear and outrage among critics that the legislation will add to the harassment of teachers who unwittingly discuss books with their students that some on the right may take offense with.
In defense of the legislation, its author, Sen. James Tomes (R-Wadesville), says it was complaints from parents that “pornography is rampant in schools,” that prompted him to introduce Senate Bill 12.
The problem? When asked by his Democratic colleague, Sen. J.D. Ford (D-Indianapolis) to provide information about which particular schools supposedly had the “inappropriate” material – or what titles he was referring to – Sen. Tomes failed to provide any evidence to support his unsubstantiated claims.
The state senator’s co-sponsor, Sen. Blake Doriot (R-Goshen), didn’t do much better in the proof department. Instead, the Republicans told legislators to visit their offices if they wanted to “see examples of such material.”
According to Sen. Tomes, Purple for Parents — a far-right group based in Northern Indiana — provided the lawmaker with research on local schools reported to be carrying pornographic material.
But he would later admit that he himself hasn’t found any.
A major cause for concern is provisioning in the bill that will not only prevent those charged under the law from defending themselves but also allows parents to file complaints if they feel the material is “inappropriate.”
While that may seem reasonable on its face, some are skeptical that it won’t be abused in a country grappling with a deep and partisan divide that has seen educators, libraries, the LGBTQ community, and other marginalized groups targeted by Republicans and their voters.
One opponent of the bill, Senator Rodney Pol (D-Chesterton), criticized the legislation for its vagueness, saying that “Allowing parents to file complaints over material that is ‘inappropriate’,” could open the floodgates of “politically motivated grievances.”
“That’s about as un-American as it gets. We’re going to chill you into doing what we want. This is about moving the cultural and political war to the libraries,” Sen. Pol declared.
The Chesterton lawmaker said that Indiana already has laws on the books that makes it criminal to give obscene or harmful materials to children.
Pol also condemned the removal of the “educational” statutory defense that could have an adverse effect on the types of books provided in school libraries.
“This is about telling the librarian if you don’t get rid of those books that I don’t like, I’m gonna see if I can get you put in jail,” Pol added.
Sen. Ford pressed Sen. Tomes on whether he thought that material featuring LGBTQ themes was harmful to children — but in true GOP fashion, the conservative legislator tap-danced around the question.
“That’s a broad statement because if you’re talking about maybe explaining the lifestyle is one thing,” Tomes said. “But these books I’m talking about, Senator Ford, these books are just full bore graphic pictures and illustrations.”
Again, the state senator failed to provide information on which books contained this content and what, if any, schools they were found in.
Republicans have been posturing and pandering to their base amid the backlash against the LGBTQ community, and both public and school libraries for making books like the popular coming-of-age story, Gender Queer, available to readers.
Massive book bans and the criminalization of certain materials have put librarians and teachers in a precarious position — trying to find a balance between giving students a quality and inclusive education and the possibility of going to jail.
On its website, Purple for Parents promotes itself as an advocacy group “to protect children from harmful agendas saturating the education system.”
According to the group Northern Indiana Atheists, Purple for Parents is little more than a hate group.
An offshoot of the Arizona-based extremist group, Patriot Movement, Northern Indiana Atheists claims the far-right group started Purple for Parents with a mission “to stop teacher strikes, dismantle teacher unions, fight for school choice, and ‘end the politicization of K-12 classrooms.'”
With chapters in five states, Purple for Parents uses its active social media presence to sway others to their cause. Bombarding school board meetings – forcing some to go virtual – and using hot-button manufactured issues like the “scary” Critical Race Theory (CRT) to fear-monger the public and further its Christofascist agenda.
“P4P’s demands seem to revolve around three ideas. Taking Critical Race Theory out of schools; ending Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula; and ending all discussions and training on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), which includes removing LGBTQ+ teachers and mentions of LGBTQ+ persons in school,” Northern Indiana Atheists wrote about the group’s mission.
Unsurprisingly, Senate Bill 12, voted along party lines with 37 Republicans voting for the legislation – and Democrats in the chamber voting against it.
With the GOP continuing to align itself with the most extreme on the conservative spectrum, attacks on our educational system, whitewashing this nation’s history, and attempting to eradicate any discussions necessary to prepare students for a world that is becoming increasingly diverse, the “United” in the United States may soon just be a fallacy.
Original reporting by Lee V. Gaines at WFYI Indianapolis.
Follow Ty Ross on Twitter @cooltxchick