Public hearing over bill that could criminalize library content brings out books and passages read aloud

The first speaker at a public hearing on opening West Virginia’s obscenity laws to prosecution of library representatives read right away from a book describing oral sex, and that set a tone for the House Chamber discussion of what is or isn’t appropriate material.

“This is for our 12, 13 and 14-year old children in our middle schools,” said speaker Elisa Payne.

“Our society is morally bankrupt if we allow  children access to this obscenity in our schools. “We are not banning or burning; we are protecting.”

The public hearing in the House of Delegates was occurring because West Virginia lawmakers are considering opening public and school libraries up to felony charges for the display or dissemination of obscene material to minors. The House Judiciary Committee has held off on considering the bill until after the public hearing.

About half of the speakers at the public hearing favor the move. The other half warned that opening up libraries to potential prosecution would result in a chilling effect.

Removing exemptions from West Virginia’s obscenity law could expose library representatives to felony penalties resulting in up to $25,000 fines or up to five years in jail.

Federal obscenity laws generally follow a three-pronged test, including whether a reasonable person finds that the material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

“You may not like it but it does not mean we should be censoring it,” said Eli Baumwell, interim executive director of ACLU West Virginia.

The public hearing was helpful because speakers on each side of the issue cited books that they believed could be affected by the possible law. Most of the books cited by supporters of the potential felony liability included passages with explicit sexual descriptions.

Several states, including Arkansashave passed similar laws opening libraries to obscenity laws in recent years. Often, library materials under scrutiny are not straight-out pornography but instead works like “This Book is Gay” and “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out.”

The most challenged in 2021 and 2022, according to the American Library Association, was “Gender Queer,” an illustrated memoir that recounts the author’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality.

Speaker Cara Butler went to the podium in the House Chamber and read a passage about oral sex. “We need to return to a God-fearing country,” she said. “Do you think God is happy with this?”

Another speaker in favor of the bill, Jessica Rowley of Wood County, held a book up, called it “filth” and read from it. She said it had been on display and showed an illustration depicting oral sex. She held up another book with illustrations of male masturbation, showing it to those gathered in the House Chamber.

“Is this what we want our children to read? We can do better West Virginia,” Rowley said.

Speaker Barbara Steinke spoke against the policy proposal, citing “Heather Has Two Mommies.” She said that book could be helpful to a young person whose family reflects that situation.

“If it’s not a traditional family, does that make it obscene?” she asked.

Mickey Blackwell, executive director of the West Virginia Principals Association, came with copies of “Huckleberry Finn,” written in the 1800s and now considered a literary classic, and the more modern “Howl.”

Blackwell said parents are responsible for saying no to books they consider unacceptable. “It is always the parent’s responsibility. Throw them in jail and see how…” and he was cut off as his time to speak ran out.

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