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The next book ban: States aim to limit titles students can search for

Republican legislation in several states would restrict school library databases

Vandegrift High School’s library in Austin, Texas has been dealing with book banning and censorship. (Montinique Monroe/For The Washington Post )
11 min

Republican lawmakers across the country are proposing legislation that would target online library databases and library management technology — tools built by a half-dozen large companies that catalogue millions of books, journals and articles that students peruse for assignments.

These bills — already enacted in Utah and Tennessee, on the verge of becoming law in Oklahoma, and proposed in at least six other states — are broadly similar. They require databases to remove and block student access to material that is obscene, pornographic, sexually exploitative of children or “harmful to minors” — designations that opponents say could encompass a wide range of texts. Some laws, such as a bill advanced in Nebraska, also require that parents be able to view all content their children can view online.

So far, database companies — such as ProQuest, Gale, EBSCO Information Services and Follett School Solutions — say they are tracking the spate of legislation but have no plans to make major changes to their services. In March, Follett, which provides books and library management systems to the majority of American school districts, said it would add a feature allowing parents to track and limit what their children check out from the library. Then it disavowed the idea after receiving backlash on social media.

Conservative activists, politicians and parents argue that more controls are needed to eradicate an epidemic of sexual content, including pornographic material, that students are viewing through online school databases.

There is “absolute obscenity on our laptops or our devices that we allow our children to take home, and they’re paid for with taxpayer dollars,” said Joni Albrecht (R), a Nebraska state representative who introduced that state’s bill. “I have 14 grandchildren, and I don’t want any one of them exposed to anything like this.”

But educators and librarians say the new laws are unnecessary, as federal child protection and Internet privacy laws passed decades ago already require database companies to ensure that their materials are age-appropriate, which the companies have done mostly successfully for at least a quarter-century. Database company leaders said in statements and interviews that they are careful to provide only content that is meant for K-12 students.

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Educators worry that the real purpose of the laws — especially those forbidding content “harmful to minors” — is to justify blocking articles and books that parents dislike.

“If somebody with an anti-gay, anti-trans agenda wants to censor, the first thing you have to be able to do is point to a law that says, well, issues of sexuality are off-limits for children,” said John Chrastka, the executive director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit that advocates for libraries. “That’s what these laws do: provide levers to remove certain kinds of material.”

The wave of legislation focused on databases, which Chrastka called unprecedented, is part of a larger conservative-driven campaign to alter nearly every aspect of the way American public schools function. Laws are being proposed and passed across the country that limit what teachers can teach about race, racism, history, sex and gender identity — and the number of books banned from school libraries reached a record high this academic year.

In contrast with those noisy debates, the recent legislative attempts to regulate online library databases have been little-noticed. And that worries Tasha Bergson-Michelson, a school librarian in Palo Alto, Calif.

Bergson-Michelson said school library databases are vital for students trying to learn about the world and to gain the data-processing skills they will need to make their way in the information-rich 21st century. She noted that the online library databases make paywalled content, such as newspaper and magazine articles, accessible to all students.

“These databases mean that any of my students, without regard for their economic background, can have access to the same intellectual and practical information,” Bergson-Michelson said. “My concern is that, ultimately, my students will find themselves in a position where they can’t access things that they care about.”

A history of individual complaints

Concern over what students can view while online at school dates back to 2000, when President Bill Clinton signed into law the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). It requires that schools receiving federal technology funding equip their computers with filters that prevent students from viewing Internet pornography or content that is obscene, depicts sexual acts or is “harmful to minors.”

CIPA, coupled with the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — known as FERPA, which in part protects students’ privacy online — long ago forced library database providers to exclude pornographic and otherwise inappropriate content, Chrastka said.

EBSCO Information Services, one of the leading providers of research and reference materials to schools in the United States, complies with CIPA by operating within the pornography-excluding Web filters set by school systems, said spokeswoman Kathleen McEvoy. She added that EBSCO also “has curation controls in place that ensure age-appropriateness.” She declined to say how many school systems EBSCO works with, calling that information “proprietary.”

Britten Follett, the co-CEO of Follett School Solutions, said her company offers only titles that publishers have recommended as “age and grade-range appropriate from pre-K through 12th grade.” Other popular online database providers, including Gale and ProQuest, did not respond to questions asking about their content selection processes.

When Republican legislators and advocates criticize databases, they often point to individual bad experiences — saying they, their children or someone else’s children navigated to explicit content. EBSCO in particular has faced several complaints of this nature in recent years.

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In the mid-2010s, a Colorado family complained to the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an anti-pornography group known as NCOSE, that the parents had found articles with links to sexual content when using their teenage daughter’s EBSCO account. Soon after, NCOSE CEO Dawn Hawkins said she conducted her own search on the site and found links to pornography.

At the time, EBSCO spokeswoman McEvoy said the company did not know of any instances of students using its database to watch pornography. Still, in 2017, EBSCO conducted an audit of its content selection processes and made “policy, process and technical improvements” to ensure that material available through its database is “educationally and/or developmentally appropriate for student users,” McEvoy said in a statement Thursday. EBSCO also later added more granular controls allowing school officials to bar student access to specific articles and journal issues deemed inappropriate, adding these to a decades-old tool permitting schools to ban particular publications.

The EBSCO controversy surfaced again in 2018, when Utah mother Nicholeen Peck said she found pornography after spending 45 minutes searching the database. Local outlet 2News later replicated her search and discovered a picture of two women kissing, a picture of a woman wearing underwear and a picture in which two men are kissing on a bed while touching a woman who is wearing only underwear and pasties over her breasts.

After Peck complained to a Utah lawmaker, the state wound up canceling access to EBSCO for its more than 650,000 students. The shutdown continued for a little less than a month while officials reviewed Peck’s allegations and worked with EBSCO to upgrade filters meant to block access to inappropriate material.

Shortly after the Utah Education and Telehealth Network Board voted unanimously to restore EBSCO access, the executive director at the time, Ray Timothy, said that “we have not been able to replicate” access to the materials Peck complained about.

Last year, the Utah legislature passed a Republican-proposed measure requiring that “obscene or pornographic material” — defined as content that “appeals to prurient interest in sex” and is without “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” — be blocked from all digital resources provided to the state’s public schools. It was signed into law March 16, 2021, and took effect on May 5. State officials did not reply to requests for comment about whether it has been invoked yet.

‘A slippery slope’

The recent wave of database legislation does not seem inspired by particular reported incidents of children encountering sexual material through databases.

Albrecht, the Nebraska legislator, said she became concerned about school databases when a 71-year-old grandmother brought her a school device and showed Albrecht how easy it was to navigate to sexually explicit content.

“I’ll give you an example. Let’s say a child … wants to look at the latest and greatest toys that are out on the market,” Albrecht said. “Instantly [the database] takes them to adult toys, and in the next click you’re going to find out how to use that toy.”

Asked whether she was referring to a general Internet search — as library database searches more typically point users to books, news reports, or magazine and journal articles — Albrecht said it was a database search. Albrecht’s bill targeting databases failed in 2021 because she ran out of time, she said. But she plans to reintroduce it as her foremost priority next legislative session.

Meanwhile in Utah, Rep. Travis Seegmiller (R) — one of the sponsors of that state’s 2021 law regulating databases — said he was motivated to act because taxpayer dollars were being used to serve up “illegal pornography to young public-school students.” He did not provide examples.

Hawkins of NCOSE sent a statement Thursday saying that researchers at her company have found, inside middle school research databases, links to “hardcore pornography and prostitution websites,” as well as material that “encourages sugar dating … and normalizes risky sexual behaviors like hook-up, violent, or group sex.”

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An NCOSE spokeswoman also sent a link to a three-minute YouTube video in which a staffer types the word “pornography” into an EBSCO database. One of the search results is a book titled “Porno-Graphics and Porno-Tactics: Desire, Affect and Representation in Pornography.” A Washington Post review of the book shows that it contains images of sex acts.

EBSCO spokeswoman McEvoy wrote in an email that the book “is not in any of our databases, it is included in the Directory of Open Access Books, a free resource that had been made available” to the particular school system whose website the NCOSE staffer visited. When that school system “asked about this issue, we worked with them to adjust the library content accessible,” McEvoy wrote.

Bergson-Michelson, the Palo Alto school librarian, said students can find porn easily online and, in her experience, use databases for other reasons.

“Students say, ‘Hey, there’s an article from the Economist I want to read and it’s behind a paywall,’ ” she said. “I say, ‘Great, go to this subscription we have.’ ”

And Follett, the CEO of the namesake company, said parents across the country might have different definitions of what counts as pornography.

“That becomes a slippery slope,” she said. “Is a steamy scene in a book considered pornography? Two readers might reach a different perspective on that.”

In response to the database legislation and other recent laws focused on education, Follett said, about 30 school districts in Texas, Georgia and Florida reached out to her company in February asking for greater parental involvement in student database searches.

That is what led the company to consider adding a novel, optional feature that would have allowed parents to receive emails whenever their child checks out books from the library — and another feature that allows parents to register specific texts their child cannot read. In March, the company publicized the idea in a now-deleted LinkedIn post.

The proposal quickly drew heavy negative attention on Twitter, CEO Follett said, including boycott threats and allegations that the company was “responsible for the murder of gay children.”

The company nixed the idea a few days later without ever writing “a single line of code,” said co-CEO Paul Ilse. The main reason, Follett said, was because “there wasn’t a single thing we could have built that would have met everyone’s desires.”