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Illinois becomes the first state in the U.S. to ban book bans

JB Pritzker closeup
Rex Arbogast

Citing a “vitriolic strain of white nationalism,” Gov. JB Pritzker signed the measure withholding state grant money from libraries if they ban books.

With the strokes of multiple pens, Gov. JB Pritzker made Illinois the first state in the nation to withhold funding from public libraries if they ban books.

“Book bans are about censorship, marginalizing people, marginalizing ideas and facts,” Pritzker declared at the Harold Washington Library, the crown jewel of Chicago’s public library system. “Regimes ban books, not democracies.”

“All Illinoisans deserve to see themselves reflected in the books that they read, the art that they see, the history they learn,” he said.

Under the law, libraries have to adopt the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which says, among other things, that “materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” If the public or school library chooses not to follow these guidelines or similar ones, they’ll lose access to grant funding.

The Secretary of State’s Office provides a number of grants on a yearly basis. Some distribute money to school districts to buy books and upgrade technology, others help public libraries digitize their historical collections.

Alexi Giannoulias, the newly elected Democratic Secretary of State, campaigned on the issue and called librarians heroes.“Many librarians have been forced to quit after being harassed and subjected to intimidation and hateful messages on social media, others have been fired for refusing to remove books from circulation,” he said. “The concept of banning books contradicts the very essence of what our country stands for. It also defies what education is all about: teaching our children to think for themselves. When books are banned, we’re at risk from the harm that ignorance brings.”

Illinois’ constitutional offices are controlled by Democrats and the state legislature has a Democratic supermajority in both chambers, so the measure was expected to pass. But Republicans voted nearly unanimously against it.“None of your constituents voted for this random organization. None of your constituents are funding this random organization,” said Republican State Sen. Jason Plummer during debate, referring to the American Library Association. “They’re funding their local libraries, they’re electing their local library boards, and you’re taking their powers away from them simply because you may not agree with their beliefs.”

But Tracie Hall, a Chicago native and executive director of the American Library Association since 2020, had a different take.

“We insist that free people must always read freely. Free people read freely,” Hall said.

“History will surely assess this moment and the years to come and note that we librarians and legislators, civic leaders and community stewards, did not stand idly by and let the right to read and to freely access libraries be taken from us.”

The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2024.

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.