Bills to restrict 'sexually explicit' library content passed in House, Senate

Overwhelming legislative support for HB 1205 and SB 2360 sees both bills clear major hurdles

ND Capitol
The North Dakota State Capitol in Bismarck.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

BISMARCK — Two separate bills, HB 1205 and SB 2360, seek to restrict the shelving and dissemination of obscene materials in public libraries. Both passed overwhelmingly in Legislative Assembly votes on Thursday. A total of 65 House Republicans voted in favor of HB 1205, two more than needed to override a veto. The 28 in opposition included 16 Republicans and all 12 House Dem-NPL members.

Rep. Karla Hanson, D-Fargo, was among them.

“If you believe that you, as an adult, should be able to check out and read or watch anything that you choose, and you want to have that freedom, you should vote no on this bill,” she said before the House roll call vote. “Libraries already have robust processes in place both for selecting books and reviewing books if there is a concern.”

HB 1205 by inforumdocs on Scribd

Controversy underlying these bills occurred when journalists at The Valley City Times-Record and The Dickinson Press reported on the presence of a controversial book titled "Let's talk about it: A teen's guide to sex, relationships and being a human" in the catalogs of their respective local public libraries.

These reports were followed by several crowded library board meetings, drawing widespread attention from both supporters and opponents of the book. Last month the Valley City Barnes County Public Library Board agreed to keep the book shelved, and Dickinson's library director implemented an opt-in system allowing patrons to require parental permission for their children to check out books — but implemented no controls for access in-library.


House Majority Leader Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, believes this is insufficient.

"For that book to be on the shelves in Dickinson, North Dakota, somebody's making a mistake. And somebody's not understanding the effect or having concern for what the effects are on our children," he said in an interview with The Press.

Prior to final passage, HB 1205 was amended from the original version to remove the clause that would’ve made the class B misdemeanor penalty under existing century code applicable to library staff. It also reduced the list of prohibited categories from 12 to 8. The list now includes “human masturbation, deviant sexual intercourse, sexual intercourse, direct physical stimulation of genitals, sadomasochistic abuse, postpubertal human genitals, sexual activity or sexual perversion.” The previous version additionally prohibited visual depictions of “sexual preferences, sex-based classifications, sexual identity or gender identity.”

If passed on the floor the bills would take effect on March 31, 2024.

The law would require all public libraries to have a policy ensuring their collections are in compliance by January 1, and that they submit a compliance report to legislative management by May 1, 2024.
During a Friday phone interview, Lefor said he’s happy with the bill as it stands.

“People talk about ‘they want to criminalize the librarians.’ That's the last thing we want to do,” Lefor said. “This is not meant to be punitive. It's meant to send a message that having sexually explicit books in our public libraries in North Dakota is not acceptable.”

The Senate version of the bill would apply to both public libraries and public school libraries, compelling each to “submit an aggregate written report to the attorney general, no later than December 1st of each year regarding any issues related to provider compliance with technology protection measures required by subsection 2.”

SB 2360 also contains stronger enforcement mechanisms, with the same class B misdemeanor criminal penalties originally included in HB 1205, as well as a clause compelling the ultimate withholding of funds from entities that refuse to comply. The Senate version would prohibit the same eight categories of obscenity as identified in 1205, as well as "sex based classifications." It also restricts written content, while the the House version only applies to visual subject matter.


SB 2360 by inforumdocs on Scribd

While testifying during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Feb. 14, Sen. Keith Boehm, R-Mandan, noted his disturbance upon learning that citizens were discouraged by public officials at a Nov. 8 Dickinson Area Public Library Board meeting from holding up lewd book images because the meeting was broadcast on live television. Yet those same books were and remain easily accessible to any child who enters that library. He refuted arguments the bill violates First Amendment protections.

“The Supreme Court ruled in the United States vs. Riedel in 1971 that obscenity laws were constitutional. Opponents of this legislation have also cited the book banning argument,” Boehm said. “However, our schools and libraries do not contain blatant adult pornography. If these materials can be kept out of our minor accessible institutions, pornographic and obscene materials targeting our youth should be as well.”

Joseph Rector of Jamestown is director of the James River Valley Library System. He testified that as the father of a teenage boy, he can understand concerns about age appropriate materials, but asserted that it is a subjective interpretation being made by each parent's judgment and that these decisions should be made at a community level. In denouncing the bill he argued that it expands criminal penalties over definitions upon which he believes reasonable people may disagree.

“Librarians are stuck in the middle between people who want to redefine certain things as ‘obscenity,’ and others who may wish to redefine certain political, religious or scientific views as ‘hate speech’ or ‘misinformation,’" Rector stated. "Librarians defend everyone's right to free speech and thought, keeping in mind that the First Amendment was especially designed to protect unpopular views. Popular speech does not need protection.”

Dickinson mother Miki Thompson submitted written testimony in favor of SB 2360, arguing that the basic social contract holding society together has been violated.

“We work hard, we invest into our children’s lives. We trusted unspoken social contracts. We never believed that a public librarian or school librarian would bring pornography and grooming books into our libraries, let alone advocate for them under the guise of freedom of speech,” Thompson stated, contending that she and many others have been ignored by local library officials in their attempts to "handle it at a local level."

She added, “We have been through the requests for reconsideration forms at our libraries. We have voiced our displeasure with the material at library board meetings and city commissions. We have had parents apply to be on the library boards. All met with silence.”

The Senate bill passed in a 38-9 vote, with all four Dem-NPL senators and five Republicans voting against — including newly elected Sen. Dean Rummel of Dickinson.


It remains unclear what the final version will look like following a joint chamber committee, or if Gov. Doug Burgum would sign it. In April 2021 the Republican dominated legislature passed a bill to prevent biological males from competing in girl’s sports and vice-versa at the K-12 level. Conservatives fell short of overriding Burgum’s veto in the Senate by three votes.

“That (Thursday) vote is not necessarily indicative of what might happen if the Governor were to veto it. You know, I'm not even concerned about that at this point, because it certainly has to get through the Senate first. So we're going to take things one step at a time,” Lefor said.

Jason O’Day is a University of Iowa graduate, with Bachelor’s Degrees in Journalism and Political Science. Before moving to Dickinson in September of 2021, he was a general news reporter at the Creston News Advertiser in southwest Iowa. He was born and raised in Davenport, Iowa. With a passion for the outdoors and his Catholic faith, he’s loving life on the Western Edge. His reporting focuses on Stark County government and surrounding rural communities.
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