Bill to better keep "harmful content" from minors in public settings rejected by SD Republican lawmakers
“I would like to have seen some more teeth to the [curriculum review] process,” a Sioux Falls-area mother said after the unsuccessful hearing.
PIERRE, S.D. — A lengthy discussion period, with several Republican lawmakers on the fence over a proposal to better keep material “harmful to minors” out of reach of children in public schools and libraries, ended in a 9-3 repudiation of the proposal backed by conservative legislators and groups like Moms for Liberty.
Under the proposal, city councils and school boards in South Dakota would have been responsible for developing and enforcing a policy that keeps material that is “harmful to minors” out of reach of children in public schools and libraries.
Under House Bill 1163, school boards and libraries would be required to create three-pronged policies: restricting minors from obtaining this material, providing a method for an individual to report potentially harmful material and establishing a procedure for the governing body — a city council for public libraries and a school board for public schools — to determine if that reported material is harmful.
The decision by the House Education committee on Wednesday, Feb. 8 to reject the proposal largely stemmed from a protracted lashing by lobbyists representing municipalities and school districts in the state, who cast the issue as state overreach into local control and assured lawmakers that there is already a web of policies related to harmful materials in public schools and libraries in the state.
“If you want a process to hold schools accountable for obscene or harmful material to minors, you have that right in front of you,” Wade Pogany, the executive director of the Associated School Boards of South Dakota, said during his testimony.
Sam Nelson, a lobbyist for the Sioux Falls School District, noted that the district is one of the dozens in the state that has a well-defined complaint process for reconsideration of library and instructional materials.
But proponents of the bill, who brought several examples of books available in public libraries and schools with sexual and sometimes violent themes, say there is little recourse contained in these complaint policies.
“I would like to have seen some more teeth to the process,” said Michele Klimek, a mother in Sioux Falls involved with the local Moms for Liberty chapter. “And with the policy [already in place], where I was struggling with that, it's not until after the material has been in the children’s hands.”
Starting in 2024, the proposal, carried by Rep. Jon Hansen, of Dell Rapids, and Sen. Jessica Castleberry, of Rapid City, would have required the governing body to withhold public funds from a public school or library that either does not adopt a policy or “fails to comply” with an adopted policy.
While Hansen explained that, in the case of libraries, a city council would withhold subsidies of those facilities, his answer on how this would work for public schools was less clear, explaining that the relatively complex funding of schools means the decision from a school board of how to withhold funding would come from “within their own processes.”
Lawmakers in favor urged their colleagues to ignore the public education lobby’s insistence that these proposals were already in place, referencing the continued presence of “harmful” materials on public shelves, several examples of which were brought by proponents during testimony.
“This is important, I don't think anybody would argue when you start to talk about our culture, in general, that it's moving in the wrong direction too often,” Rep. Scott Odenbach, of Spearfish, said during his discussion. “And we've been sent here to represent the people who want us to draw a line sometimes.”
The majority of lawmakers who made up the nine votes against the legislation, many of them Republicans, explained their reasoning in lengthy statements for the record, mainly landing on the need for local control without burdensome state oversight. Others invoked the ability for parents to work with school officials and their children to monitor content.
“This bill is a solution looking for a problem. I think teachers and librarians can be trusted to do this,” said Rep. Tim Reisch, of Howard. “Parents are the primary educators of their children. They absolutely are. My parents taught me if I came across inappropriate material, I put it down and tell them.”
Though disappointing for proponents from the Moms for Liberty chapters in the state, Klimek and others in attendance said the discussion was important for making them more fully understand the issue. They painted the hearing as only a start, one that reminded them of the action they can take on the local level to see content they view as harmful removed from schools.
“[The legislators] were here willing to listen. A lot of comments had good input, even from the opposition,” Klimek said. “I didn't know some of what the opposition said. We can go to the school board with a list of materials that we'd like to see removed. OK, great.”
Jason Harward is a Report for America corps reporter who writes about state politics in South Dakota. Contact him at 605-301-0496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.