Feb 21, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Librarians could face criminal charges over "obscene" books in some states

Illustration of a bookshelf with rainbow-colored books wrapped in "do not enter" yellow tape.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

A handful of states are eyeing laws that would allow criminal charges against school librarians for distributing books that contain "obscene matter."

Why it matters: GOP state lawmakers have in recent years increased their efforts to ban material they deem inappropriate from schools and libraries.

  • That material includes books on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Zoom in: West Virginia Republicans passed a bill last week in the state's House of Delegates that calls for "removing bona fide schools, public libraries, and museums" from a list of exemptions protecting them from criminal liability for distributing and displaying "obscene matter" to minors.

  • Known as House Bill 4654, the legislation is now headed for the state's Senate.

Yes, but: Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, said the bill "is designed to create confusion for educators about what kinds of materials can be taught or displayed."

  • "Tell lawmakers to focus on real problems," the ACLU of West Virginia added.

Meanwhile, Georgia lawmakers are eyeing a similar bill that seeks to pursue criminal prosecution for librarians if they violate state obscenity laws, per AP.

  • Known as Senate Bill 154, the effort would remove a current exemption librarians have from criminal penalties for partaking in the distribution of "harmful materials" to minors.

Between the lines: The American Library Association said this type of legislation would allow for "advocacy groups and parents to sue or prosecute library workers" for providing books and other materials that present "accurate medical information about sex or puberty, describe sexual behavior, or reflect the experiences of LGBTQ+ persons."

  • The ALA noted that such legal action would be "based on the false claim that any material that includes information about sex, sexuality, gender identity, or sexual orientation is legally obscene and inappropriate for minors."

What they're saying: "I think that we're seeing the result of misinformation about what books are in libraries and available to young people," Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom, told Axios.

  • Caldwell-Stone said "librarians are curating collections that are done under policies that are adopted by governing boards, whether it's a school board or library board" and are "acquiring materials according to those policies and making them available."
  • "I just don't understand why we would open them up to prosecution for doing the job they're asked to do according to policy set by boards," Caldwell-Stone added.

Zoom out: Last September, the ALA found 695 attempts to censor library materials and services in the first eight months of 2023, compared to 681 during the same period in 2022, Axios' Sareen Habeshian reports.

  • Challenges to books in public libraries accounted for 49% of the attempted bans documented, compared to 16% during the same reporting period in 2022.

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