Librarian Savannah Sessions at the Charlotte Hobbs Memorial Library in Lovell Tuesday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

School librarians are joining educators and free speech advocates to fight a proposal in the Maine Legislature that could ban schools from providing students with books and other educational materials considered obscene.

Rep. James Libby, R-Standish, said his bill would protect children from inappropriate material and provide a clear standard for what content is and is not allowed in schools.

It’s Perfectly Normal, a book that has been considered for bans in some Maine school libraries. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

But opponents say the definition of obscene is murky and that the bill would criminalize educators and deprive students of material that could help them learn about themselves and the world.

The bill is being debated as parents in school districts around Maine and the country have called for the removal of posters about gender identities and demanded that districts remove or limit access to library books including “Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir about a young, nonbinary person that includes drawings of sexual acts, and “It’s Perfectly Normal,” a children’s book about puberty, sex and relationships. In Maine, local schools boards have so far decided against removing or limiting access to the materials.

Maine school librarians caught in the middle of the culture battles are now speaking up against the movement at the state level.

“It’s a really tough climate to work in right now,” said Heather Perkinson, a librarian at Greely High School and the president of the Maine Association of School Libraries.


Savannah Sessions, librarian in the Oxford Hills school district, said the political environment is making it harder for librarians to do what they’re there for – to connect students with content that can help them learn about themselves, process their experiences and understand the world around them.

“There is a lot of fear and a lot of worry,” she said. “It’s definitely been stressful.”

School districts in Maine have been discussing whether “Gender Queer: A Memoir” should remain on library shelves after some parents have requested its removal. Associated Press

Book challenges have surged in recent years. Such challenges have historically been rare in Maine, with fewer than one per year on average, according to Samantha Duckworth, the Maine Library Association’s intellectual freedom chair and a librarian at a private law firm in Portland. Last year, there were at least 12 challenges and there have been at least eight more in the first two months of this year.

Nationally, there were 681 challenges to books involving 1,651 titles in the first eight months of 2022, according to the latest information available from the American Library Association. In 2000, the first year the association started collecting the information, there were challenges directed toward 378 books. Many of the books that have been targeted in the recent challenges cover topics of racism, addiction, gender and sexuality.

Attempts to remove or limit access to books have recently shifted from the local to the statewide level. There are bills in almost a dozen states that, like Libby’s proposal, would make it illegal for educators to provide obscene material to minors, according to EveryLibrary, a national nonprofit political action committee that supports libraries.

One of the major problems with the bills, opponents say, is that there is no strict definition of obscene.


Under Maine law, materials are considered obscene if they depict sexual acts, excretion or images of genitals in a manner clearly offensive to the average person and lack any literary, artistic, political or scientific value. But many say what is clearly offensive and what provides literary, artistic, political or scientific value can be up for debate.


Maine’s existing obscenity law exempt libraries, art galleries, museums and schools from being charged for providing obscene material, allowing them to share provocative or controversial content for educational purposes without fear of legal backlash. Many say that removing this protection for schools would put them in a challenging, if not impossible, situation of trying to decide what could be deemed obscene by a jury and what could not.

Libby, however, believes the definition of obscenity is strict enough that it would help clearly demarcate what content is appropriate for schools and put a stop to local book battles taking up time and energy in districts around the state, ensure there is no “pornography,” in schools and provide transparency to community members regarding how content is reviewed.

Considering “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe, which was the most banned book in America in 2022, Libby suggested that passage of his bill would result in a few pages of the book being removed from schools, but not the entire thing.

As written, the bill would open up educators to being charged with a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in jail and a $5,000 fine if they provided material to a student that is judged to be obscene. Libby said his intent was never to have teachers or librarians face criminal charges, even though that is how the bill is written, and that he is working on an amendment to his bill that would downgrade the legal consequence from a felony to a cease-and-desist order and make superintendents and school board members the responsible parties.


“I’ll kill the bill myself and go to something else rather than have any criminal standard be introduced that would impact teachers and librarians,” he said. Libby said he could not provide a copy of the amendment because it is still in progress.

This isn’t the first proposal to challenge the school exemption to the state’s obscenity law. In 2019 Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, put forward a similar bill. That bill failed, but Arata said the legislation is still needed.

She would like to see educators prohibited from providing obscene material to students or at least be required to inform parents or guardians about explicit material prior to giving it to students. Arata said she’s concerned about students being provided with materials that could be embarrassing, humiliating or distressing to them, and that she is especially concerned about that a student who may have been abused is assigned to read something that could be triggering.

Heather Perkinson, the president of the Maine Association of School Libraries and a high school librarian at Greely High School, at her home in Brunswick on Tuesday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“If you’re going to have a book report about a book that describes a rape scene that would be very humiliating,” she said.

Librarians and advocates say the assertion behind Libby’s bill – that some educators are providing inappropriate content to kids – is inaccurate, offensive and harmful.

“It is troubling to have librarians and educators labeled as trying to harm children,” said John Chrastka, EveryLibrary executive director. “Sometimes there are difficult books in collections but that does not mean they are obscene or harmful.”


The political climate around book bans and education has made it hard for librarians around the state to do their jobs, said Perkinson, the Greely High School librarian. Perkinson knows of at least one school librarian who left their job due to lack of support from their district, she said.


Librarians are trained to very carefully and thoughtfully choose books for a collection. Before purchasing books they read reviews, whole books themselves, research authors, look at awards given, consider curriculums, their communities and the developmental needs of students.

Now they also have to consider the political implications of picking a book they think will bring value to a library, Perkinson said.

“Our work is not super easy to begin with because these decisions are not made lightly and now there is this whole extra layer,” she said. “We are second-guessing ourselves in ways that are exhausting.”

Educators said their foremost concern with L.D. 123 is how it could impact students.


Savannah Sessions grew up in the Oxford Hills district and is the librarian in the same school library her grandmother worked in when Sessions was a kid. She’s always loved reading, books and considering different perspectives, she said. Librarianship was a natural career path for her and she is a firm believer that students should have access to a wide range of books.

“None of the reading in the library is required,” Sessions said. “It’s to enrich lives, expand horizons and to enjoy.”

In Sessions’ view, books can be mirrors into one’s own life and experiences or windows into others. She said everyone needs some of both.

“We can’t just read books about ourselves and hope to expand our understanding of the world,” Sessions said. “We don’t all have to live the same life or agree on everything, but we shouldn’t interfere with other people’s ability to access information and find books that are right for them.”

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