North Dakota Republicans, ever the bastion of "freedom of speech and expression", are now considering throwing librarians in jail who refuse to enforce the state's proposed bans of LGBTQ+ material.
Books containing “sexually explicit” content — including depictions of sexual or gender identity — would be banned from North Dakota public libraries under legislation that state lawmakers began considering Tuesday.
The GOP-dominated state House Judiciary Committee heard arguments but did not take a vote on the measure, which applies to visual depictions of “sexually explicit” content and proposes up to 30 days imprisonment for librarians who refuse to remove the offending books.
The proposal comes amid a national wave of Republican-backed laws to ban books that feature LGBTQ subject matter — though usually those bills have been limited to school libraries, not public ones.
Supporters of the bill said it would preserve children’s innocence and reduce their exposure to pornography.
But critics said the measure is “steeped in discrimination” and would allow government censorship of material that is not actually obscene.
House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, of Dickinson, introduced the bill and said public libraries currently contain books that have “disturbing and disgusting” content, including ones that describe virginity as a silly label and assert that gender is fluid.
Lefor argued that a child’s exposure to such content has been associated with addiction, poor self esteem, devalued intimacy, increasing divorce rates, unprotected sex among young people and poor well-being — though did he did not offer any evidence to support such claims.
Stark County resident Autumn Richard also spoke in favor of the bill, giving examples of explicit content in the graphic novel “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human” and the kids’ comic book “Sex Is a Funny Word” — both available in public libraries.
Richard argued the books might have beneficial knowledge about contraceptives, body image and abusive relationships, but many sections provide information that she said was harmful for minors.
Though supporters of North Dakota’s bill repeatedly called the sexual content “obscene,” opponents said the material in question is not actually considered legally obscene.
“Nearly 50 years ago, the (U.S.) Supreme Court set the high constitutional bar that defines obscenity,” said Cody Schuler, an advocacy manager at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, who testified against the bill.
Obscenity is a narrow, well-defined category of unprotected speech that excludes any work with serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value, Schuler said. Few, if any, books have been deemed obscene, and the standard for restraining a library’s ability to distribute a book are even more stringent, Schuler added.
The definition of pornography is also subjective, opponents of the bill said.
Library Director Christine Kujawa at Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library said the library has a book with two little hamsters on the cover. At the end of the book, the hamsters get married, and they are both male.
“It’s a cute book,” Kujawa said — but it would be considered pornography under the bill because the book includes gender identity.
Facing criminal charges for keeping books on shelves is “something I never thought I would have to consider during my career as a librarian,” Kujawa added.
Frankly, not only do I expect the Roberts Court to strike down obscenity laws and "leave those up to states" but I expect North Dakota won't have any libraries soon anyway, so this won't be a problem anymore.