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.
In addition to banning depictions of “sexual identity” and "gender identity," the measure specifies 10 other things that library books cannot visually depict, including “sexual intercourse," “sexual preference” and “sexual perversion,” — though it does not define any of those terms. The proposal does not apply to books that have “serious artistic significance” or “materials used in science courses,” among other exceptions.
The bill would allow prosecutors to charge any person who displays these materials at places that children visit with a class B misdemeanor. The maximum penalty is 30 days of imprisonment and a $1,500 fine.
The wave of attempted book banning and restrictions continues to intensify across the country, the American Library Association reported in September. Numbers for 2022 approached the previous year’s totals, which were the highest in decades. Bills to restrict mature content in school libraries became laws last year in Tennessee, Utah, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma.
The most targeted books have included Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir about sexual identity, “Gender Queer,” and Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy,” a coming-of-age novel narrated by a young gay man, according to an April report.
The U.S. Department of Education investigated the removal of LGBTQ-themed books from the library of a Texas school district in December. The investigation followed a complaint by the ACLU and appeared to be the first based on a nationwide movement to ban school library books dealing with sexuality and gender.
Trisha Ahmed is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15