State of the States: Legislation and interest groups impacting freedom of information 

This post reflects the work of the ad hoc Database Working Group, which is not affiliated with AISL’s organizational structure, although we have many overlapping members. Also, credit for the work reflected here goes to all the members of that group, though for space and confidentiality purposes the members cannot all be named here. 

Additionally, while it is important to acknowledge that not every independent school has the same educational mission–and varying missions may impact the curricular and co-curricular needs of each of our libraries–we cannot know the full downstream impact of allowing censorship of educational materials. Therefore, it is important for each of us to understand the mechanisms by which information access is being curtailed.

Back-to-school means back to thinking about information access. Where electronic information is concerned, we have found (see comments on post) that it is not only the policies of one’s own state or school that have the potential to impact what information your students can access; research database vendors vary in their methods of responding to politicized concerns about content. Right now – as far as we can tell – there is a lot more pressure aimed at these vendors to curtail information access, especially around particular identities and scientific information, than to support students’ right to learn. As we independent school librarians are some of the few direct purchasers of research database products (since most public schools use only the state-provided products), our voices matter in what products offered nationwide actually contain.

I know we are all focused on kicking off our new school years right now, so it might not feel like the best time for a heavy post. But heaviness is impacting our students’ right to learn, so you might want (or need) to add electronic information access to your thinking about the year. It is certainly among the duties of my job to assure both that my students get the educational materials they need and that I am shepherding my school’s finances responsibly. That includes not paying for information my students cannot actually access due to blocked searches, or having content removed that I intentionally purchased to support learning.

In past posts by various AISL members we have discussed work being undertaken by the Database Working Group—a collaboration of various school librarians around the country–that functions independently of AISL. During our group’s boot camp this summer, we kicked off with a “State of the States” update. We agreed that the update needed to be shared more widely. Please note that we had significant assistance in our preparation from EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka, an ally fighting hard for your students’ right to read and learn.


There exist many methods for achieving censorship, or freedom to read, but we will start with a brief legislative overview of the first half of 2023. We need to care about legislation in our own states and also in other states. Legislators take other states’ bills as models for new proposals (and bills that die one year may well come back the next year, as with Nebraska’s very worrisome LB635) but also because the chilling effect  – plus legal impact – of legislation can change the content available to our students even if our own state does not legislate censorship.


According to Chrastka and EveryLibrary, the three major themes in legislation impacting reading and databases are:

  1. Limits: Bills such as Michigan’s HB4136 require public libraries to create an area only accessible to people over the age of 18 for “either obscene or sexually explicit matter that is harmful to minors” and further restrict where the materials from that area may be used.
  2. Ratings: Laws such as Texas HB900, which takes effect on September 1, 2023, require vendors, publishers, or libraries to apply a ratings system to materials. In Texas, for example, vendors must rate materials before sale, and must recall anything that has already been purchased which is rated as “sexually explicit.” Several states have put forth legislation of this nature so far, among them Tennessee and Maine.
  3. Criminalization: For the past several years, criminalizing databases themselves was the trend. Such laws passed in Idaho, Utah, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, and died in several other states. This year, there has been a shift to criminalizing librarians or all educators, making individuals legally liable if a student is perceived to have accessed obscene materials.* This year there has been more legislation that includes:
  • Redefining “obscenity” (diverging from the Miller Test): especially changing language around the “community standards” that define “obscenity” and/or removing protections such as those afforded to artistic, literary, political, or scientific sources. 
  • There is also a proliferation of alternate terms that (as I read it, not being a lawyer) attempt to legislate around the legal definition of obscenity, such as: “inappropriate materials,” “sexually explicit materials,” “pornographic for minors,” “harmful to minors,” or “hard-core pornography.” The definitions of these terms may vary from historical or contemporary common usage. 

(Much of this wording implies we are talking exclusively about electronic content dealing with gender, sexuality, and gendered health. However, certain book bans have applied “harmful to minors” to other identifiers, such as race/ethnicity and religion. We are still struggling to get transparency and understanding around how these identities are impacted by censorship attempts for electronic content.)

  • Iowa legislation, currently in committee, includes “accredited nonpublic schools” (and also prohibits “the use of standards or guidance developed by the American Library Association” for collection development and weeding). 

Among other trends, states such as Georgia and Texas are legislating statewide collection development and/or reconsideration policies that override those of individual libraries or districts. 

For more or state-specific information, we strongly recommend EveryLibrary’s page on 2023 Legislation of Concern, and especially reading EveryLibrary’s Unpacking 2023 Legislation of Concern for Libraries and Education.


Once again, we care both about bills passed and bills proposed. It is common to see several states proposing the same language, or to see legislators shopping their text around to other states. If many states legislate against the freedom to learn through accessing electronic educational materials, our vendors may change the content of our subscription products against our will. We have already seen that happen in at least one vendor’s products.

In the first half of 2023 we saw:

  • 7 laws passed and enacted
  • 1 bill vetoed
  • 28 bills dead (but not forgotten)
  • Many more currently in committee

The states that have passed legislation specific to databases and access in the first half of 2023 are:

  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Oklahoma
  • Tennessee
  • Utah (multiple)

Other forms of censorship

Legislation is created by legislators who are influenced by activists. Beyond legislation exist many other paths to enacting (or fighting) censorship. Each state mixes and matches legislation and these other forms in their own unique way. Additional paths include:

  • Policies that are created by executive heads of government departments, both elected and appointed, such as the governor or the head of the Department of Education.
  • Rules that are created by the bureaucracy. In many cases (but certainly not all), rules set the guidelines for how a law is actually supposed to be implemented.
  • Enforcement that can come from various administrative authorities, such as the state Attorney General, a school board, or a school administrator.
  • Requests for proposals from, for example, state libraries buying electronic resources on behalf of the K-12 schools in a state. Requests for proposals (asking vendors to submit an offer for a database that the state could buy) may lean on contract law to set requirements for what content is acceptable within a state. While most states keep RFPs public and transparent, other states have been placing the requirements of their calls for proposals behind non-disclosure agreements. 
  • Chilling effects that cause vendors to self-censor may lead to changes in the functionality or content in electronic products. It is extremely challenging to discover when browsing, searching, or content have been changed and are not giving students the educational materials we believed we purchased.

Federal level

Federal activity mirrors much of what we see on the state level. Contacting your reps to encourage support for the Right to Read Act and to get them on board re-introducing, co-sponsoring, and voting for the Don’t Block LGBT Act are first steps.

As a profession, we need to also follow policies and rules that might impact our students right to learn. For example, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Right has started working against book bans (example). 

What can you do?

To start with a very specific ask: Help us determine vocabulary that is not librarian jargon to distinguish among different types of blocked search terms. We are looking for language to describe:

  • technical stopwords like “the,” “an,” “or,” etc.
  • swear words that have traditionally been blacklisted
  • identity-related and health science terms that have been/have potential to be blacklisted for political reasons.

If you have ever tried to teach anyone about “stopwords,” you know that is not a term the public is willing to embrace. Feel free to email Tasha directly with suggestions for our group to discuss.

Another very helpful action that each of us can take: ask for transparency from vendors regarding their editorial policies for both content inclusion and responding to complaints about content.

If you want to go deeper, the latter portion of EveryLibrary’s Unpacking 2023 Legislation of Concern for Libraries and Education is a truly excellent description of necessary civic engagement beyond advocating for or against pending legislation. It is worth a read just to enhance one’s own civics education, even if this is not your personal issue. It covers the need for:

Pre-legislative prep: Research, Stakeholder engagement, Coalition building, Media push

Post-legislative actions: Implementation advocacy, Judicial actions

More than anything, we need to spread the word. There are many directly impacted states where we could really use contacts so that we can offer the most-needed support. Talk to librarian friends, but also potential advocates in other professions. 

In support of any or all of these actions, you are most welcome to join the Database Working Group! We meet twice a month – come when you can, do what you can. As we plan our conference presentation strategy for the next year we would love to have your voice making proposals to speak. Generally, cultivating our diverse range of skills, perspectives, and institutional needs makes us stronger.

Civic work is everyone’s business, and our particular business is making sure our students have the right to learn.

*Note that Arkansas’ law creating criminal liability for librarians and booksellers has been temporarily blocked by a judge. (Source)

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