Bills would ban sexual material in North Dakota public libraries

Opponents say the legislation is censorship

North Dakota Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, has concerns about certain books available to children at public libraries.
Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune

BISMARCK — Two bills seek to ban sexual content in public libraries in North Dakota, legislation opponents say is censorship.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Jan. 17, heard House Bill 1205, brought by House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson. The bill would ban libraries from maintaining or promoting books with visual depictions of "explicit sexual material," including intercourse, masturbation and other acts.

People could request that libraries remove materials in violation, and libraries would have to take the items out within 30 days. Libraries also would have to develop a policy for ensuring age-appropriate book collections, for evaluating requests for removing materials, and for periodically reviewing collections to ensure there is no sexually explicit material.

Lefor cited visual nudity in drawings in the graphic novel "Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human," for why he brought the bill. The book recently was the subject of a public hearing by the Valley City Barnes County Public Library.

"I think the content of it is disgusting, that at the very least, public libraries should put it in a restricted area where (children) need to get permission from their parents to take a book out like this, but they're offering it to junior high school kids ... and when we grew up, we didn't need things like this," Lefor told the Tribune. "This is not a way to raise our kids, and we have to do everything we can to make sure that this doesn't get into the hands of children, especially without their parents' knowledge."


The bill does make exceptions for "works of art that, when taken as a whole, have serious artistic significance, or works of anthropological significance, or materials used in science courses, including materials used in biology, anatomy, physiology, or sexual education classes."

Former Kensal School Superintendent Tom Tracy described "Let's Talk About It" as "legally obscene" and equated it to pornography. He said he sent a copy of the book to North Dakota's attorney general, but didn't elaborate.

Other supporters said the bill enhances parental rights and enables parents to gradually introduce children to mature topics.

Lefor's bill and a similar one, Senate Bill 2123, introduced by Sen. Todd Beard, R-Williston, "promote censorship and book bans" and have "been drafted with vague and open-ended language, which leaves the door open for unintended consequences and room for interpretation," said Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library Director Christine Kujawa.

Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library Director Christine Kujawa
Tom Stromme / The Bismarck Tribune

She questioned how the library — with more than 470,000 print and digital items, 20,000 items added annually, and an average 187,000 visitors annually — could monitor access to objectionable content.

"The answer is, we can’t and shouldn’t. Citizens should have the freedom to choose the information they want to access. In the case of minors, parents are responsible for this, not the government. Not in North Dakota, in the United States, a state and country so rightfully proud of a representative democracy," Kujawa said.

Trained librarians with master's degrees in literature choose materials for the library's collection, which go by the library's collection development policy approved by its board of trustees, per state law, she told the House panel. Community members also make suggestions for books.

The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota denounced Lefor's bill as "a blatant attempt at censorship, pure and simple."


The North Dakota Library Association in a statement said: "We stand opposed to censorship and any effort to coerce belief, suppress opinion, or punish those whose expression does not conform to what is deemed to be orthodox in history, politics, or belief. The unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to the preservation of a free and democratic society."

"Let's Talk About It" was in the Valley City Barnes County Public Library's young-adult section for nearly two years, and was checked out twice before controversy arose recently, said Library Board Member Allen Blume. The board voted 4-1 last week to move the book to the regular collection. He was the lone "no" vote.

"This is not about the book. This is not about protecting our children. It's about censorship," Blume told lawmakers.

Lefor told the Tribune he's open to discussion of an amendment for allowing sexually explicit material in a restricted area of a public library. He said the internet is available for people who want to find the content or subjects his bill would ban.

The top House Republican acknowledged that book bans are "a slippery slope ... but at the end of the day, if we don't stand up for our kids, who will?"

The House panel did not immediately act on Lefor's bill.

A hearing has not been set on Senate Bill 2123. The bill would impose a Class B misdemeanor for displaying materials with depictions or written descriptions of nudity "in a manner to exploit sex, lust, or perversion" in places frequented by minors. The charge carries a maximum punishment of thirty days in jail and a $1,500 fine.

The bill also strikes out an exception in the state's obscenity control law for schools, colleges, universities, museums, public libraries, and art galleries.


Beard twice turned down Tribune questions about the bill.

What To Read Next
Get Local