Library bill spurs controversy

Controversy has erupted at the State Capitol over a bill that, if it becomes law, would make it a serious crime for a librarian or museum curator to display or make available to a minor material that is obscene.

Specifically, HB 4654 removes schools, museums and public libraries from the exemption in current law that protects them from prosecution.

Bill sponsor, Delegate Brandon Steele (R, Raleigh) said on Talkline Wednesday that several librarians in his community urged him to push the bill to protect children from salacious material.*

That view was reinforced by a number of speakers at a public hearing Wednesday morning in the House Chamber, as our Brad McElhinny reported.

“The first speaker… 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’.”

But just as many speakers at the hearing argued against the bill, while defending the access to books with material that some consider objectionable. “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 desire to protect children from anything and everything that is not age appropriate is understandable.  However, this bill is a taking a sledgehammer to a gnat. Here are some of the problems with the bill:

—West Virginia libraries already have in place a procedure for challenging books. An individual can file for a reconsideration of the material, which is then reviewed by staff, the library director and the library board.

—Republican legislators constantly push for “parental rights.” That argument implies that parents, not the government, know what is best for their children, so then let the parents decide what books their children should read.

—Such a law would have a chilling effect on what is included in libraries and museums. A librarian or curator, who is trained for the position, may believe a book or display has true artistic and intellectual value, but they may self-censor for fear of being criminally charged. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison, and a $25,000 fine.

—Bill advocates say they want to prevent children from easily accessing pornography in the library. However, advocates in other states have used the law to target an expansive list of books, including classics such as Of Mice and Men, Brave New World, The Kite Runner, The Color Purple, The Glass Castle and To Kill a Mockingbird. The law would invite a rash of book banning efforts.

—The law would be constitutionally questionable. Arkansas passed a similar law last year and it has been challenged in court.  Last July, a federal judge issued a temporary injunction preventing enforcement, citing First Amendment issues.

Advocates for this bill need to demonstrate that the existence of certain books in libraries represents a threat so great that it requires a state law where a violation could send a librarian to prison.

Otherwise, let librarians do their jobs and entrust parents to make their own decisions about what their children read.

*(The West Virginia Library Association has come out against the bill.)

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