Two Vague and Dangerous Book Ban Bills in South Carolina Target Public and School Libraries

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.

South Carolina has positioned itself among several other states nationwide putting restrictions on access to funding for libraries that do not comply with censorship demands. There are currently two pieces of legislation directly targeting the work of public libraries and school libraries in different ways–and through completely different means.

In both cases, lawmakers have utilized underhanded means to exert authority over the expertise of trained and experienced library professionals. In both cases, it will be South Carolina residents, especially young people, who lose access to material meant to educate and entertain them. The legislation directly aims at the same books already being targeted in schools and public libraries not only nationwide but in South Carolina itself, which has banned at least 150+ books in schools and public libraries.

This parallel legislation is a reminder that this is not–nor has it ever been–about ensuring an “appropriately curated” materials selection at public schools because young people can simply “get those books elsewhere.” This is about complete and total control over access to information that does not align with far-right ideologies and white supremacy.

School Libraries–Regulation 43-170

Regulation 43-170 (R-43-170) puts the power of book selection in schools and school libraries across the state in the hands of the South Carolina Department of Education. The Department would set a two-prong test that school boards would need to use to determine whether or not materials are appropriate for those under the age of 17. The first prong is that the material is age and developmentally appropriate while the second prong is that aligns with state educational instructional programs. R-43-170 would create a uniform process for school board trustees to use when a book complaint is filed and sets up an appeal process through the SC Department of Education, whose decision on any given book would apply to books statewide. This provision is similar to the recent Utah bill which bans books in every state school if it is banned in at least three districts.

R-43-170 was presented early in the state’s legislative session but little action was taken on it in either the state House or Senate. But because of South Carolina law, the bill can still pass. Legislators has 120 days to chime in about the bill once presented by the SC Department of Education and that time will expire June 25. If they don’t, the bill will automatically be approved.

This government mandated test of a book’s appropriateness is not only deeply vague, it assumes library workers and educators are unsuited to do their own jobs. The South Carolina Department of Education becomes the authority on what materials students may or may not access. The leadership of this Department alone should raise concerns about what materials they would deem “age and developmentally appropriate.”

Ellen Weaver, the South Carolina Department of Education Supervisor, has been actively working to create more power for her department when it comes to schools and libraries. Last fall, she ended a 50-year relationship between the Department and the South Carolina Association of School Librarians. Weaver wrote in a public letter about the dissolution of the relationship that it was because the association shared resources and language around how to fight book bans happening throughout the state:

Whether or not existing library selection and purchasing policies have properly ensured that library materials sufficiently support the instructional program of the school and are age and developmentally appropriate are valid questions for parents and all community members to ask.

District and school-level administrators as well as librarians and classroom teachers should be continually asking those questions as well. Questions, concerns, or even challenges to materials that may not meet those standards should be handled transparently, responsively, and in a way that reinforces the necessary partnership between parents and educators and builds trust in our system of public education.

Regrettably, a number of SCASL’s recent communications via its website (such as the American Library Association’s Advocacy Toolkit), in testimony regarding library “censorship” before members of the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Taskforce, and most recently in a letter sent to local school board members undermine that vital objective.

Severing that relationship set up the perfect conditions for Weaver’s department to take on authority over schools and school libraries. Earlier this month, the department ended AP African American Studies courses statewide effective the coming school year. That decision is a troubling and chilling message about what the state’s Department of Education deems important for student education–and it’s likely a sign of how the leadership of the department would define “age and developmentally appropriate” material in schools statewide.

The SC Department of Education knew R-43-170 would be a deeply unpopular bill. Their conversations around it have been filled with mis and dis information, leading to advocates on the ground level pushing back about their rights being stripped. So to continue in their pursuit of the bill, the Department of Education under Weaver hired Miles Coleman, attorney and president of the Columbia chapter of the Federalist Society, an organization that supports conservative and libertarian lawyers, to show up to department meetings about the legislation in support of it.

Weaver authorized up to $25,000 in taxpayer money to have Coleman show up to State Board of Education meetings in support of R-43-170 on her behalf. He is not an employee of the Department of Education but he, like Weaver, is a graduate of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University. He was hired by Weaver specifically to advocate for this censorship bill and protect the department from potential litigation–almost as if it was clear from the start that this was not only an unpopular bill and one rooted in fundamental doctrine but also a potential violation of the First Amendment.

Below is the contract request between Weaver and Coleman’s employer, as acquired by the South Carolina ACLU. You’ll note the contract was written just a couple of weeks before Weaver ended the relationship with the state’s school library association and its end date is five days after the 120 day legislative deadline addressed above.

image of the department of ed's request to employ the services of max coleman.

The contract from Coleman’s employer, outlining the fees and the responsibilities, is in full here.

State taxpayers have been on the hook not only with a series of new regulations that stripe their rights but they’ve had to foot the bill for the state’s Department of Education’s conservative lobbyist.

Not all hope is lost on R-43-170, though. There have been advocates working on the ground to get this bill killed, including the state’s chapter of the ACLU and Authors Against Book Bans, DAYLO, Freedom to Read South Carolina Coalition, and ProTruth SC. But all residents are encouraged to take action now before it’s too late–lawmakers still have time to end this bill. Weaver has made it clear that she and her Department of Education are not interested in helping educators nor students; they’re interested in having total power over what can and cannot be accessed in these publicly funded institutions.

Take the time to fill out this form that will be sent directly to South Carolina lawmakers who are most likely to oppose the bill. You can also email Weaver directly at It would also be worth sending letters of support to the President-Elect of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians, Jamie Gregory.

Public Libraries–Proviso 27.1

South Carolina has, for the first time in years, increased annual budget allocations to public libraries through the state. But that money comes with a new proviso that took public library workers were taken by surprise last week.

In order to get their annual budgets, public libraries would now be required to “certify to the State library that their county libraries do not offer any books or materials that appeal to the prurient interest of children under the age of seventeen in children’s, youth, or teen book sections of libraries and are only made available with explicit parental consent.”

The proviso does not define “prurient interests,” though per state code, that refers to “a shameful or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion and is reflective of an arousal of lewd and lascivious desires and thoughts.” In other words, the types of books that do not exist in any public library in the United States. The vagueness of the language would certainly allow for the type of interpretation seen across the country and the state itself. The books likely to be deemed inappropriate are those by or about LGBTQ+ people.

The proviso mirrors much of an Alabama bill that ties funding for public libraries to restrictions on books that the state government deems inappropriate. The proviso was floated in April by three state Senators–including Senator Kimbrell who has been a leader in pushing book bans for years–but it went no where until last week’s meeting between the Senate and House. Librarians across the state were given virtually no time to speak up about the proviso before it was voted on.

“My direct supervisor forwarded 2 of my Youth Services colleagues and myself an email from our library director informing us of 2 provisos that would be voted on Wednesday, June 12 and encouraging anyone interested to contact the 6 committee members with concerns,” explained one South Carolina public librarian. “We received this email Monday, June 10 and had until Tuesday, June 11 to reach out to them. It also happens that Tuesday was primary election day for South Carolina. By Friday, we received word that the Senate’s version of the proviso passed. I know of at least 6 other librarians in Dorchester, Horry, and Richland counties who had no idea this was something even up for discussion.”

These definitions are vague and subjective, open to interpretation by whatever the whims of the current lawmakers are. Moreover, the proviso makes clear that legislators have no idea how libraries through the state operate. They’ve tasked the South Carolina State Library with tracking library compliance with the proviso, but the State Library has no authority over collection policies in public libraries.

In South Carolina, public libraries work under the direction of boards that are appointed by the county. Those boards are in charge of the hiring and firing of the library director. It will be up to the boards to determine where and how they interpret the law and definition of inappropriate material based; this is, of course, a problem when the board is appointed by the county. This is not the work of the State Library and the State Library, despite the proviso naming them in the process.

Where those advocating for book bans call it a case of seeking local control, provisos like this actually take away local control. It is the state legislators determining what materials are available in publicly-funded libraries in as vague terminology as possible. Public libraries already have processes and procedures in place for patrons to challenge material in the collection. It is worth noting that South Carolina is home to several very active Moms For Liberty chapters, which certainly ties into the development of this proviso, its unclear goal posts, and the power a county government can wield in its oversight and application of the proviso in their respective libraries.

Angela Craig, President of the South Carolina Library Association, hammers the point home in an official statement on the proviso:

Public libraries have robust collections of materials specifically for youth, in alignment with library collection development policies, all of which are approved by local library boards. Public libraries are guided by board approved policies that shape our collection, ultimately rooted in providing the freedom to read, a fundamental right of our community.

Libraries have always asserted that parents and caregivers are their child’s first and best teachers, and it is the right of parents to decide what is appropriate for their children. However, while parents have the right to guide their own children’s reading, they should not be making decisions for other parents’ children. Additionally, library staff does not take responsibility for judging the appropriateness of materials selected by children when parents are not present as library staff defer to parents to supervise those selections.

The language in this proviso is subjective, vague, and appears to undermine local control over library policies.

The State Library has worked to clarify they have had no role in the creation of this proviso and emphasized, too, that parental rights have never been in question.

“The South Carolina State Library and public libraries in our state support a parent’s right to guide the selection of material for their own children’s reading and encourage parental involvement,” their statement reads. “However, the changes to Proviso 27.1 are vague, subjective, and outside of the scope of the governing legislation related to the Duties of State Library in executing library policy.”

Indeed, legislators who worked to create the proviso lay bare their intentions. It’s not to help libraries–it’s to hinder them.

South Carolina legislators have until July 1 to get their budget to the governor’s desk, meaning that there is still time to push back against its passage. South Carolina residents are urged to reach out to the six members on the budget conference committee charged with signing off on budget provisos. They are:

It would also be useful to write your local library boards in South Carolina praising the work of the librarians in those institutions and familiarize yourself with who oversees appointing board members in your county. This will be increasingly important if the budget passes with the proviso.

R-43-170 and Proviso 27.1 are but two of the anti-library and anti-education bills floated in the South Carolina legislature this year. SC Department of Education Regulation 43-170, a bill encouraging mass book bans in schools and supported by groups like Moms For Liberty, has not made much movement through the legislature yet but isn’t set for expiration until March 2025. That is another bill similar to R-43-170 that came from the State Department of Education Supervisor Ms. Weaver. Meanwhile House Bill 3728 would prohibit classroom discussion of race and gender in all K-12 classrooms; it is current under discussion between the House and Senate, where legislators hope to hash out their differences and pass it this session.

These bills are about the destabilization and destruction of public goods like schools and libraries. What happens in the schools doesn’t stay in the schools. It moves on to the public library.

We’re seeing it play out in tandem in South Carolina.


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