'Egregious overreach': Librarians could risk jail time over ND book ban bills targeting sexual material
“I certainly don’t want to go to jail for doing my job, but I am not going to censor either,” said Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library Director Christine Kujawa.
FARGO — Librarians across North Dakota are bracing for what they call government overreach as two bills banning sexually explicit content in books make their way through the 68th Legislative Assembly.
Some librarians, like Christine Kujawa, the director at Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library, are preparing for possible jail time, which Senate Bill 2360 provides if the future law is broken.
The bill, which passed 38-9 and now moves to the House, prohibits the display of sexually explicit material in places where minors are allowed, including depictions or written descriptions of nudity "to exploit sex, lust or perversion."
The bill would impose a Class B misdemeanor as a penalty, which carries a maximum punishment of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine.
Supporters say the Senate bill, along with the similar House Bill 1205 , are needed to protect youth from pornography.
“I certainly don’t want to go to jail for doing my job, but I am not going to censor either,” Kujawa said.
House Bill 1205 would prohibit public libraries from “maintaining explicit sexual material,” which under the bill includes visual depictions of "human masturbation, deviant sexual intercourse, sexual intercourse" and other acts.
Opponents call the regulatory move an overreach and censorship. The bill passed behind a 65-28 vote, and moves to the Senate for a vote.
Valley City Barnes County Public Library Director Anita Tulp said she’s uncertain why legislators are targeting libraries when nearly all children have easy access to smartphones.
“I certainly don’t want to go to jail. I do want to stand up for what I believe in, and I don’t want to go to jail and be blamed for something that I don’t believe I did wrong," she said. "But if I need to fight it, I will fight it."
Tim Dirks, the Fargo Public Library director, said he doesn’t fear for himself, as he has “tremendous support from city administration,” but he is afraid for librarians in smaller or rural communities.
“Some libraries in these smaller communities are doing so much with so little," Dirks said.
They get next to nothing for what they do in the community, he added.
"For them to be categorized, or intimidated or threatened with jail, it’s really unfortunate and it’s really terrible when I think of all the hard work going on," he said.
Proponents of the bills allege that books like “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human,” which is available in some libraries, is “225 pages of despicable filth,” according to House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson.
“Some will say censorship, some will say it’s book banning, I’ll submit to you that this is an honest effort to protect our children,” Lefor told the House before the vote. "I am a believer in local control, but when local control doesn’t do the job, that is when I think we need to step in."
Librarians and opponents of censorship are fighting the proposed book restrictions with a unique form of protest.
About 200 demonstrators attended a silent "read-in" protest outside the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library on Thursday, March 2. Kujawa flipped through Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," a novel that depicts a dystopian world in which books are outlawed.
Mobile shelves in Fargo are stocked with books and an accompanying sign that says: “Read ‘em before they’re gone” and “Warning, these and other items may be censored pending current North Dakota legislation."
Managers in Valley City are appealing to the public for input, holding open house events and posting on social media.
The North Dakota Library Association also condemned the bills, saying such laws should be considered censorship, saying they are a danger to a free and democratic society.
“They have brought forth calls for the censorship of books and other resources that relate to the lives of those who are gay, queer, or transgender or that tell the stories of persons of color," NDLA said in a news release. "By claiming that these works are immoral and subversive, they attempt to sway elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles and individual rights."
Kujawa also said she found the bills troubling because of the support from Moms for Liberty , a nationwide nonprofit organization that advocates for parental rights in schools.
The organization is also known for campaigning against COVID-19 restrictions in schools , being against school curriculum that mentions LGBTQ rights and race , and has campaigned to ban books from school libraries that address gender and sexuality issues.
Karen Krenz, from Williston, represented Moms for Liberty and testified on a separate Senate bill, which would have banned the display of any nude or partially nude material where minors can frequent and would have provided a penalty.
Krenz said she found five books in Williston to be questionable.
"We do not need to exploit our children to these obscenities and sexually explicit materials," she said.
That bill failed after a 46-1 vote.
“I find it ironic when there are ideas brought forth from other national organizations and they (Moms of Liberty) don’t agree with it," Kujawa said. "They say we don’t want outside influence, but with these bills they say it’s OK."
Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, said before the House that some North Dakota libraries have lost focus on representing their communities with appropriate literature.
“It is interesting that the library computers have filters on them to protect children, but the library shelves do not,” he said.
State librarian Mary Soucie testified to the Senate that reading materials are filtered through a state-run program called Stage Net to 48 out of 83 public libraries across the state.
“Here in North Dakota, filters are largely embraced by the library community,” said Soucie, who has been a librarian for more than 30 years.
Donna Rice Hughes, CEO and president of Enough is Enough, a non-profit organization based in Virginia, testified during the hearing of Senate Bill 2360 that many libraries are not in compliance with federal obscenity laws in filtering pornography.
“This is why it’s so critically important for states like North Dakota to stand up,” Hughes said.
Kujawa claimed the bills contain “vague and open-ended language, which leaves the door open for unintended consequences and room for interpretation.”
She said the bills are an embarrassment to the state, and if they become law, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of books could be gone from library shelves and databases.
The bills would most likely be challenged in court, Dirks noted, citing the legislation as an attack on the First Amendment.
“The potential collateral impact of the legislation is so broad, it would impact any number in our collection,” he said, adding that more than 300,000 books would have to be culled.
Language in the House bill would require every public library to report back to the state that they don't have any offensive material.
“It’s troubling as far as First Amendment issues; it’s also an egregious overreach by the state,” Dirks said, adding that users who want access need to make their voices heard.
"Ultimately, this legislation will be taking resources away from the community," he said.
Forum News Service Reporter Jeremy Turley contributed to this report.