OK, we stopped Follett — Any righteous anger left for the bad actors forcing bad choices?

What do California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, Oklahoma, and Tennessee have in common? Each state’s legislature has considered and/or passed laws criminalizing databases, building a narrative of fighting against content that is “harmful to minors” (and other terms I’m skipping because they may trigger sensitive Internet filters). 

This post will cover:

What is this legislation?

This particular movement has been underway since a Colorado couple filed a lawsuit against EBSCO and the Colorado Library Consortium in 2018, alleging that databases “knowingly [provide] sexually explicit and obscene materials to school children” and that the Consortium “purchases from EBSCO and knowingly brokers sexually explicit, obscene, and harmful materials to Colorado school children.” According to James LaRue, the former director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, it was the first known challenge to a library database. The lawsuit was dismissed, but in its wake a connected individual in Utah filed a complaint that led to the state turning off all access to EBSCO’s K-12 databases while it was investigated. Although specious, the state of Utah has since maintained over 1500 blocked terms in their state consortium-purchased K-12 databases and has now passed anti-database legislation (and demonstrated consistently via usage reports that students are not searching for inappropriate content). The pandemic has since helped popularize the narrative perpetrated by that lawsuit. Various political groups fed parents’ worries that children isolated at home during online school were using databases that – they led parents to believe – were giving students the capacity to access materials that were harmful to minors. 

“Harmful to minors” and the related designations are used in COPA and CIPA, though you may most clearly recall having seen them applied more recently to a wide range of books being pulled from library shelves around the country. This movement is occurring in states that span the political spectrum.

Legislators in many states have introduced bills designed to shut down statewide database access unless massive filtering takes place.

So far, I have seen three general flavors of legislation:

  1. Requires all databases purchased for use by K-12 students (generally at the state and/or school district level, sometimes including other entities such as public or university libraries) to have “safety policies and technological protection measures” that filter and prohibit sharing of materials that are harmful to minors, etc. 
    1. Penalty for noncompliance is termination of contract and withholding payment;
    2. Very common version of legislation;
    3. Appears across states to come primarily from a template; 
    4. Examples include Idaho (enacted), Utah (signed by governor 3/21), Oklahoma (in committee) and many more (many voted down or languishing in committee).
  2. Requires schools to provide convenient methods for parents or guardians to track, monitor, or view curricular and supplemental learning materials.
    1. Often part of a so-called “Parents’ Rights” bill
    2. For example, in California.
  3. Nebraska’s bill, currently undergoing amendments from the Judiciary Committee, is particularly pernicious and is intended as a model for other states. In addition to the requirements above, the Nebraska bill requires that schools:
    1. Assign each K-12 student an individual logins for any state-contracted databases, outlawing group accounts; and
    2. “Provide the account credential of each student in kindergarten through grade twelve to such student’s parent or guardian and allow the parent or guardian access to all materials accessible to the student.”

The bill also outlines situations in which individuals can sue database vendors and and claim damages.

History suggests that we will see continued attempts at legislation on this topic across the nation; the inciting rhetoric suggests that the library vendors’ products themselves are not the actual target. Rather, the legislation seems to be aimed at libraries and the schools they serve. All of which leaves students caught in the crossfire, impacting their access to information as well as their privacy.

Why support vendors?

Last week, a nationful of librarians raised voices in protest when Follett reached out to say they were considering complying with so-called “Parents’ Rights” legislation being promulgated in a number of states. Many librarians responded viscerally–not only due to our belief in intellectual freedom, but also in the knowledge that many administrators might see that optional “fix” as an easy answer if Follett made it available. Furthermore, we worry about whether technological changes demanded in one place might come to impact our students’ access to information in another place. So we fought back against Follett and now feel empowered and righteous in our victory.

Meanwhile, the laws and bills that forced Follett to consider adding optional modules remain in place. Of course vendors with business models requiring money from libraries need to act in accordance with the ethics of librarianship. That said, I could not help spending last week wishing to see the energy that went into anti-Follett advocacy aimed instead at our state legislatures and the encoding of censorship into law. 

If we want our students to continue to have intellectual freedoms, it is critical that we focus our efforts on ensuring that our vendors will maintain the legal rights to provide all of us with the educational content they can provide.

What can I do?

So, if you have energy to give, how can you help? A group of librarians is working on a strategy now. We are happy to have more hands to make this work lighter. 

  1. Now: you can help identify if any legislation is passed or pending in your state that would impact database access. Whether in so-called “parental rights” bills, freestanding bills requiring enhanced filtering, or other mechanisms for parental reviews of “supplemental educational materials,” we are trying to get a sense of what attempts to block intellectual freedom through databases are out there. Please feel free to use this anonymous form to point us towards legislation impacting databases.
  2. Sign up here and we will reach out and find a volunteer task that works for you. Also, watch this space. We are constructing a crowdsourced monitoring tool so we can try to keep an eye on what is being blocked in different parts of the US. 

In gratitude: So many people have helped me understand what is happening here. Many of them cannot be named due to risk in their workplaces. However, the entire ad hoc working group for building realistic databases has worked together to reach this point. Some of our colleagues’ comments about unsearchable terms on my last blog post started a process. Several anonymous individuals helped me understand more about what was going on. EveryLibrary tracks legislation and has helped me better understand the movements underway. My family have been supportive as I have lost sleep, and … well, everyone I have encountered has had to listen to this tale as we followed its twists and turns. Thank you to each and every one of you. And, thank you to to village of librarians and Americans committed to intellectual freedom that it will require to move forward and safeguard our students’ right to learn.