Library obscenity bill has faded into the stacks, but remains a concern to librarians

Legislation to open libraries to felony prosecution if minors gain access to obscene materials has been a source of controversy, but it hasn’t yet hit a committee agenda.

Right now, public and school libraries have exemptions to West Virginia’s law against displaying or disseminating obscene material to minors. House Bill 4654 would work by simply removing the exemptions.

West Virginia’s obscenity laws have possible punishments of fines up to $25,000 and up to five years imprisonment.

A public hearing last Wednesday to discuss the implications divided participants and drew attention from the public, particularly as some presenters read explicit material aloud.

But the bill has not yet come before a committee.

It had been listed on the Jan. 19 House Judiciary Committee agenda, but a big snow wiped that out. Then, Jan. 22, the bill was pulled from that day’s meeting in anticipation of the public hearing.

The public hearing on Jan. 24 was spicy and led into another Judiciary Committee meeting that afternoon. Sometimes the subjects of public hearings can lead straight into committee consideration of the related bill, but when the Judiciary Committee agenda came out that day the obscenity bill was not on it. Then, this past Friday, the committee dealt with four bills but not that one.

Brandon Steele

At the Legislature, any bill can disappear from consideration for a while and then pop back up later or in a different format. The library bill’s sponsor, Delegate Brandon Steele, wants it to move forward but has hints of doubt about whether it will.

“There’s a real question as to whether or not that’s going to come back up on the agenda. I would have assumed it would have come back up on Wednesday after the hearing, which is when I would have typically done that,” said Steele, R-Raleigh. “It’s really not my call whether or not that bill goes back on the agenda, but I would think for my constituents and the vast majority of the constituents of my colleagues they would prefer to see the bill run.

“So I don’t always understand, and I’m not in the back room with the thought process with the leadership and the committee chairman, but that’s his discretion of what to put on the agenda and if he doesn’t feel like that’s something he wants to pursue there’s not a whole lot I can do about that.”

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.

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.

Steele said librarians from his own community approached him with concerns about material available to minors, and he has sponsored a similar bill three years in a row. The first two years, the bill also did not make an agenda.

“I still feel the same way,” he said Friday. “I think what we’re really talking about is, if it’s illegal in the parking lot it should be illegal in the building. I think the public hearing bore out that there’s a significant amount of interest in seeing this proceed.”

As Steele discussed the bill on the House floor before that day’s session, librarians had gathered just outside the chamber for an annual legislative day, scheduled and planned way before this controversy hit.

Material to promote libraries at the West Virginia Legislature.
Megan Tarbett

Megan Tarbett, president of the West Virginia Library Association, was near a display table just under the statue of a pointing Senator Robert C. Byrd, ready to answer any questions about the role of libraries in communities.

Tarbett, in an interview, said libraries need to have materials for a range of tastes in their communities and that they have systems in place to consider challenges over what’s appropriate. In responding to such complaints, she said, material can be removed, placed in a different section or kept in place.

The library association opposes the bill, she made clear.

“We do oppose this bill because it’s not necessary,” she said. “We are already following our own individual procedures as well as state code. We are working our best to have something for everyone on the shelf, but if it’s something you do have concerns about come talk to us.”

Brian Raitz, director at the Parkersburg & Wood County Library, has experienced several situations with challenged materials. He said “Gender Queer” has been the subject of criticism. Ratiz said that book is in the adult biography section.

He said the reconsideration process is one avenue for challenges.

“I do not question their emotional response to material like this,” Raitz said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” “I think just about everybody in every community will be able to find something in their library that will probably offend them. So I don’t fault people with emotional responses to materials. That is their right and their ability to communicate that.”

Raitz said the exemption currently in the law is not for libraries and museums to hide behind or to allow obscene materials.

“I can clearly say to you, without a doubt, we have no pornography,” he said. “We have nothing obscene in our collection, period.”

Brian Raitz, director at the Parkersburg & Wood County Library, speaks at a public hearing at the Legislature.






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