The Battle that Shouldn’t Be, in Utah of All Places

First, I want to say, Thank You! Thank you for fighting for your children, for writing in to the State Board and legislators to speak up for our children’s innocence and their safety. We are living in strange times. Who would’ve thought that standing up for bright line protections against sexually explicit content for our children would be considered so controversial? Or that as adults we’d be expected to collaborate and negotiate with other adults on just how much porn in schools is “okay?”

Yet here we are. And we are here precisely because some of the decisionmakers in our schools and school districts have decided that all books have the presumption of innocence, even those books with words and pictures that would destroy the innocence of our children.

The author, Natalie Cline, serves on the Utah State Board of Education and represents District 9. Her interest in public education dates back a decade, and is focused on defending and championing the primary role of the family in every aspect of a child's life. Cline's philosophy of pedagogy is characterized by a desire to return to the simple art of learning.

A love of liberty, learning, and the Lord has informed her unwavering approach to tackling education policy and difficult topics at the Board from a truth-based perspective.

it is the culmination of this commitment that has earned natalie cline a reputation as one of Utah's foremost fighters for freedom, faith, and families.

This letter, sent July 14, 2022, and published here with permission, was written to Natalie Cline's friends and constituents in response to their support for her efforts to protect children from pornography in public schools. It is not an official USBE position.

I’m deeply concerned that, if passed in its current form, the Board’s Master Merged Draft will be just as ineffective in stopping porn in schools as the R277-328 Rule has been in stopping CRT in schools.

This means that parents will have to face the reality that there will be little to no protections afforded to their children against porn exposure at schools, short of resorting to litigation.

If we’re serious about making schools safe, eliminating the risk of children being influenced by sexually suggestive and corrosive materials, and creating environments conducive to learning and free of distraction, then we have to face the reality that sexually explicit content is only ever harmful, and never helpful. This should be self-evident, but community standards have been loosened to the extent that we’ve lost sight of who our communities should protect most.

If you would like to read the behind-the-scenes details of my fight against porn in any form in public schools, and how my efforts culminated in creating the Sensitive Materials Model Policy Draft 3.5 that was ultimately rejected by the Board on June 30, I’ve included the epic backstory below.

DECEMBER 2021

In December of 2021, staff at the Utah State Board of Education (USBE) introduced a Discussion Item for Library Governance Standards in a meeting of the Board’s Law and Licensing committee, of which I am a member. Other members include Matt Hymas, Cindy Davis, Randy Boothe, and Chairwoman Carol Lear. In this meeting you can see how USBE Library Specialists frame the discussion of library materials around the concept of promoting “librarian rights” and protecting against “censorship.”  These links all go to Board documents or videos specific to that meeting. This portion of the meeting video shows parents pleading for the removal of highly sexualized materials in schools. I voiced my own concerns as well, advocating for an approach to sexually graphic materials that puts “guardrails at the top” to protect youth against exposure to porn, not “ambulances below,” after the damage has been done to their vulnerable minds and hearts.

JANUARY 2022

USBE staff took all these recommendations, and at the January 2022 Law and Licensing committee meeting presented a Rule, School Libraries R277-628 Draft 1. One look at this draft was enough to tell me who staff had really listened to in December. The draft mirrored the Library Specialist powerpoint presentation from the December meeting, and failed to address mine and other parents’ concerns voiced at that meeting. Parents had been proving for months how easy it was for kids to access obscenity in their schools, and this draft’s vague language did nothing to stop that. When it’s harder for a child to get an Ibuprofen at school than it is to get a hold of porn, something is definitely not right. The draft promoted the idea that kids should have unrestricted access to any material using the American Library Association’s (ALA) skewed interpretation of “First Amendment rights,” but under Utah law that argument simply isn’t true.

So in response, I submitted my own Rule draft to create tighter restrictions on sexually graphic and other vulgar materials in libraries, one that would rightly hold school employees accountable to a higher standard when it comes to protecting our children. My hope was to prevent porn in any form by including clear definitions from Utah Code. Unfortunately, my draft was rejected in favor of Draft 3, which was a stripped down version of the USBE staff’s Draft 1. Draft 3 passed out of committee, in spite of my “No” vote. Under Draft 3, the committee directed the Superintendent (USBE staff) to create a model policy for districts and charter schools (LEAs, or Local Education Agencies) to use in creating their own policies by September 1, 2022.

The USBE creates two types of governing documents: Rules and Policies. Rules have the force of law and LEAs are required to follow them. Policies are intended to govern internal USBE operations. Model policies do not fall under either of these categories at the USBE. They are created only to give guidance to LEAs to create their own policies, and do not have the force of law.

When the USBE presents model policies, LEAs are under no obligation to follow the policies—they are merely templates to suggest action. Knowing this, I made a motion that the model policy created by the Superintendent had to come back to the committee for its approval. I wanted to make sure that whatever model policy the Superintendent created at least included language that modeled solid protections for children against porn, according to Utah law. Member Boothe agreed to this motion, along with Member Davis. Multiple committee members, including myself, also concurred that a list of laws pertaining to pornographic content should be specifically spelled out and referenced for the benefit of the LEAs in the model policy. The motion passed committee, which brings us to February.

FEBRUARY 2022

In February 2022, the R277-628 School Libraries Rule was passed by the Board, 14-1, without the help of my vote. I didn’t vote for it because it provided no specifics on the selection of materials and no accountability for LEAs in their materials selections. All it did was kick the issue of policing porn back to the LEAs—the same LEAs which wouldn’t police the porn in the first place. The LEAs were asked to do these two things only:

  1. [E]stablish a policy and accompanying procedures for the selection and reconsideration of library materials selected for a school’s library that is consistent with current state and federal law,” and
  2. [E]nsure each school within the LEA complies with the LEA’s policy and accompanying procedures for the selection and reconsideration of library materials selected for a school’s library.”

That was it, and it was clearly lacking, with zero explicit protections for children. Every LEA could do its own thing, and schools would only be held accountable to doing whatever the LEA decided, whether it was the right thing or not.

MARCH 2022

At the beginning of March 2022 we saw the passage of Rep. Ken Ivory’s HB374, Sensitive Materials in Schools, which was written specifically to prohibit sexually explicit materials and live performances, in not just school libraries but all designated school settings. It also invoked Utah Code 76-10-1227(2)(c), which asserts that “a description or depiction of illicit sex or sexual immorality has no serious value for minors.” This is key because this statute in particular establishes that pornographic materials for minors need not necessarily meet the three-pronged standard of pornography established in the SCOTUS case Miller v. California (i.e., that material: as a whole and according to community standards, appeals to prurient interest; depicts or describes sexual conduct according to state law; and taken as a whole lacks serious artistic, political, literary, or scientific value).

In other words, the statute recognizes, rightly, that a different “community” standard can be applied to children when it comes to obscenity. We’ve seen this repeatedly through contractual, medical, employment, and, yes, educational distinctions in how minors are treated under the law.

But beyond the legal considerations, I’ve always believed we have a higher, caretaker duty to create safe environments that don’t hypersexualize our children.  It goes without saying that we can’t shield them from every age-inappropriate influence in the world. But to deliberately keep school materials which on face (“prima facie”) depict deviant or graphic sex acts and justify those materials by saying they “reflect cultural inclusivity” and therefore meet “community standards” and demonstrate “serious value” is definitely not caring and certainly not safe. In fact, it’s nothing less than gross negligence and depraved indifference masquerading as tolerance. We don’t allow into our schools other media, like movies, that blur protective boundaries. Why should books be an exception?

What did HB374 (codified as 53G-10-103) mean at the State Board level? It meant that by November of 2022, the Board had to report to the Legislature:

  1. Any policy the Board or the LEAs adopted to comply with HB374;
  2. Any complaints received by the Board or LEAs and actions taken in response to those by the Board or LEAs; and
  3. Any Rule adopted by the Board in compliance.

As this was new legislation, and as the adoption of R277-628 preceded it, it seemed a given that a new Rule would be necessary—the provisions of R277-628 simply didn’t give enough specificity or direction to the LEAs on the handling of sensitive materials, nor did it specify any clear Board role in the supervision of this handling. Under Utah’s Administrative Rulemaking Act, the State Board has the authority to make Rules, which have the effect of law. When new education legislation is passed, the board is obligated to write Rules to implement the new legislation. HB374 should be no exception.

I got the sense, however, that the USBE was going to try to retroactively apply R277-628 to HB374 and not write a Rule specific to it, which was confirmed later in an email:

Email from USBE staff regarding the USBE's lack of intent to create a Rule for HB374

Again, R277-628 only addressed school libraries, and not all school settings, as required by HB374. Also, it allowed LEAs very broad latitude in creating their own policies in the selection and reconsideration of library materials, and didn’t mention anything about legally mandated prohibitions on sensitive materials. The only form of concrete “guidance” would come through a model policy, and even adherence to that would be voluntary—the LEAs could choose to disregard it entirely in favor of their own policies that had been shown time and time again to ignore the concerns of parents.

Both the State Legislature and the State Board have staked very public positions against pornography in the past; however, the consistency of adhering to these symbolic, “feel-good” documents has been seriously lacking, as none of them have the force of law. Enforcement has been practically non-existent, proving the dire need for better oversight. Moreover, the Legislature and the USBE already had the language in place prohibiting exposing children to porn in schools and other settings—which begs the question: what good are laws that are not enforced? There’s nothing that’s easier to disregard than an empty threat. And activists have taken full advantage of our soft, toothless laws that have no bite, to the real detriment of our children and our freedom.

APRIL 2022

As April rolled in, USBE staff, under the direction of the Superintendent, had indeed introduced a Model Policy for R277-628 that took an ambiguous, no-guardrails approach to library materials only and ignored sensitive materials in other school settings. At this point, HB374 had been signed into law (53G-10-103) and its provisions were no secret. There was no good reason for it to not be incorporated into the USBE’s Model Policy.

Instead, the Model Policy presented the selection and reconsideration of materials in an “anything goes” light, as long as “library experts” deemed the materials to have merit, no matter how tenuous or subjective. It mentioned nothing specific to the statutes in 53G-10-103. It didn’t even refer to sensitive material “complaints,” but rather used alternative terms such as “reconsideration,” “challenged materials,” and “questioned items.” But 53G-10-103 required the term “complaints” to be used for reporting purposes. Some Law and Licensing committee members amended the policy, but not in a way that added any clarity or accountability to parents or the State Board.

I offered a Utah Legal Compliance Checklist to help LEAs determine obscene content and, hoping to force the committee to adopt stronger protections, made a series of motions to amend the Model Policy as the meeting time was running out.  This effort met with resistance from the USBE Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Ashley Biehl, who cited the ALA’s Library “Bill of Rights”, an agenda-heavy document which, as I pointed out, is neither legally binding nor anything close to it. As Providence would have it, these amendments bought the extra time needed to push the vote on the Model Policy to the next month, which gave me the opportunity to present my own model policy which I knew needed to incorporate the provisions of HB374 which had been intentionally left out.

MAY 2022

The May 2022 meeting of the Law and Licensing committee brought the USBE’s unwillingness to properly implement HB374 into the spotlight. At this point, legislators were made aware that I had created a Model Policy (Draft 2) that was objectively better aligned with HB374 compared to the USBE staff’s original model policy. A few days after I submitted my Model Policy Draft 2 to the committee, Member Carol Lear offered a competing Model Policy which borrowed some elements of mine but overwhelmingly maintained the direction of the USBE staff’s original draft. Lear’s draft also received the endorsement of the Utah Educational Library Media Association.

Of note, AAG Ashley Biehl had just released a Memorandum dated May 4 to the LEAs statewide which presented her interpretation of the laws surrounding school libraries in response to the Model Policy issue. The memorandum created controversy as it effectively undermined both the requirements and intent of HB374. This was pointed out to Board members here, here, and here, as just a few examples.

The interest surrounding the model policies likewise attracted the attention of numerous legislators, including the sponsors of HB374, who signed an op-ed and, in an unprecedented move, also spoke against porn in schools during the May Law and Licensing committee meeting’s comment period.

In the meeting, I drew the contrast between my model policy and Member Lear’s. My draft used language mandating that the LEAs comply strictly with its provisions, which adhered more closely to the intent of HB374 than did Member Lear’s. My model policy also included a comprehensive list of relevant obscenity definitions found in state law, as well as a rubric that would guide the LEAs step-by-step through a uniform process of vetting and removing sensitive materials. But most importantly, my model policy charged the State Board with acting as a check and balance upon the LEAs when it came to complying with 53G-10-103. In my model policy, the State Board would have been required to exercise its constitutional “general control and supervision” over the LEAs by addressing appeals from parents on their sensitive materials complaints, and whether LEAs followed the law and the review process described in my model policy.   

The committee ended up splitting its votes, 2-2, causing the motion to approve my model policy to fail. Member Hymas and I voted for my model policy, and Members Lear and Boothe voted against it (Member Davis was not present to vote). The meeting ended with Member Hymas making a motion to bring the model policies before a meeting of the full board for continued discussion.

JUNE 2022

On June 1, Attorney General Sean Reyes issued an Official Memorandum on Laws Surrounding School Libraries that superseded the previous memorandum issued by AAG Ashley Biehl, stating that “any conflict or inconsistency between this document and any prior pronouncement from the AGO should be resolved in favor of the analysis herein.” The memo made three significant statements that aligned directly with only my proposed model policy:

  1. That the “Board must create model policies consistent with such statutes, including HB374, for LEAs… [and] in turn, LEAs must follow such policies to comply with state statutes”;
  2. That to mitigate risk of legal challenge, the Board and LEAs should “first…immediately remove books from school libraries that are categorically defined as pornography under state statute”; and
  3. That “analysis under [the State’s] statutory definitions [of pornographic or indecent material as defined as harmful to minors], or strict application of the categorical exclusions in 76-10-1227 (1)(a)(i)(ii) and (iii), is the way to directly comply with HB374” (emphasis added).

Given these facts, it would seem to make my model policy the logical choice of the Board going into the special June 30 meeting scheduled for the Board to discuss the competing model policies. At this point I had a few board members reach out to me, specifically to broker a “jointly developed” draft. Some of the options proposed were fundamentally incompatible with my draft (see chart below).

Comparison of "jointly developed" draft proposals and Natalie Cline Model Policy Draft 2.0

From my perspective, all of these proposals from the jointly developed draft would take the model policy in the exact opposite direction of the Official AGO Memorandum. There was no way I could knowingly participate in any effort that would deviate from providing the strongest protections possible under law. Because I refused to compromise when it came to the protection of our kids, I took some criticism from a few Board members; others simply ignored me. I decided to continue to work on my draft (Natalie Cline Sensitive Materials Model Policy 3.5) while Board members Lear, Hymas, Hart, and Davis collaborated, with input from other Board members, staff, the Superintendency, AAG Ashley Biehl, and certain legislators, to produce what ended up being called the Master Merged Draft. I wasn’t aware that language from my model policy was used and added to the Master Merged model policy, and upon finding out, I made it clear I didn’t want my name added as a contributor.

When both drafts were made available the last week of June, it was clear that they diverged in crucial, irreconcilable ways.

Comparison of Master Merged Draft and Natalie Cline Model Policy Draft 3.5 in Key Areas

With the gravity of this decision before the Board weighing on my mind, I communicated with my fellow Board members, my constituents, and members of the public on the day before the June 30 meeting. I wanted to express how supporting my model policy would provide what I believed to be the strongest protections available for our children.  The public response was overwhelming and virtually immediate. Almost 400 unique and articulate emails from concerned and informed citizens advocating for my model policy had poured into the State Board in under 24 hours, and continued to come in through the weekend.  

June 30th came along, and so did the special meeting of the Board. Every member was present but Molly Hart. Not knowing if there would be any support for it, I made a motion. Notably, Member Hutchings seconded the motion, allowing me the opportunity to speak to my motion, and how it would trigger the creation of a much-needed Sensitive Materials Rule based on HB374 that would implement the protections that a model policy alone, being optional, could not achieve. I had hoped there would be more discussion from the Board regarding the merits of my model policy. Extinguishing this hope, Member Hymas immediately presented a substitute motion to adopt the Master Merged Draft instead of mine, and his motion was seconded by Member Lear. We had a vote, with Members Hutchings, Earl, and myself voting against Member Hymas’ motion, and the rest of the Board voting in favor of it. At this point, all I could do was make the case against the Master Merged Draft. Seeing various Board members make attempts to weaken the intent of HB374, I offered input on why the Master Merged Draft was not in the best interest of children, and why the State Board had to step up and take responsibility.  Members Davis and Lear rejected the idea that the Board was responsible to ensure that LEAs comply with the law. As the meeting wore on, it was clear that the Board was leaning toward more ambiguity, more room for human error, and fewer guardrails. Despite the meeting being scheduled until 4pm, the motion was made to table the Master Merged draft until a future meeting, scheduled for July 26, 9am to noon.

As of this moment, Utah’s children are facing the very real proposition of returning in the Fall to unsafe schools. There is a battle being waged over the minds, bodies, and spirits of the young. It takes precious little to sway or confuse a child, and children are most vulnerable when those charged with safeguarding the innocence of our youth neglect their posts, or worse.

Why is porn being allowed in schools? Because, as Jaco Booyens has said:

The most powerful weapon on earth is sex. When you use sex as a weapon to a child, you will destroy a child’s life, you will ultra control the child. [W]hen a human being is victimized sexually, they’re like a turtle that pulls its head in its shell. They will go into survival mode.…If [you] sexually compromise America’s children, they will become subordinates, they will not fight…for individual liberty, truth, [or] justice for all.”

What’s next? Turn to God for inspiration, and do the next right thing to preserve and protect your families and our future. Whatever you do, don’t go silent.

Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Duty is ours. Results are God’s.” John Quincy Adams

Whether your kids go to public schools or not, toxic sexuality has become viral in our communities. As you create a culture in your home where your children know they can confide in you, you will fortify their hearts. You need to be the source they turn to for strength, above all other adults. Your example will be the light that shines the way for others, and gives them courage to stand steadfast amid storms of social pressure and seas of propaganda.

Now is not the time to back down or get casual.

You have one job to do, and this is it—DEFEND YOUR FAMILY with all your heart, might, mind, and soul. Godspeed.

 

Yours in liberty,

Natalie Cline
Doing What Truth and Liberty Require

 

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