Few challenges arise to 'obscene' materials in North Dakota public libraries; bill amended for minors
A bill that would have initially banned the willful display of "explicit sexual material" at newsstands, bookstores and libraries has been altered to only affect children's sections.
BISMARCK — Few challenges to public libraries' materials as obscene have arisen in recent years despite North Dakota lawmakers' efforts this year to ban sexual context from the shelves.
The Legislature advanced two bills last month by veto-proof majorities, both targeting "explicit sexual material." The bills are House Bill 1205 by House Majority Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, and Senate Bill 2360 by Sen. Keith Boehm, R-Mandan.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday adopted amendments to Lefor's bill, changes which would apply to minors and libraries' children's collections.
Boehm's bill would criminalize with a misdemeanor charge the willful display of "explicit sexual material" at "newsstands or any other business establishment frequented by minors, or where minors are or may be invited as a part of the general public." Such material would include images or written descriptions of various sex acts, nudity or partial nudity.
The House Judiciary Committee will hear Boehm's bill at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 327B of the state Capitol's Judicial Wing.
Supporters say the bills would protect children from pornography. Opponents have decried the bills as censorship.
The bills have prompted library displays of books that might be banned, as well as "read-in" protests and libraries' informational sessions about their policies.
Focus on minors
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday heard Lefor's bill, which the House passed last month in a 65-28 vote.
The panel adopted amendments overhauling the bill to be specific to minors and children's collections.
The amended bill would define "explicit sexual material" as "any material which, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest of minors; is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community in North Dakota as a whole with respect to what is suitable material for minors; and taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."
The bill would mandate public libraries to come up with policies and procedures before next year for removing or relocating "explicit sexual material," handling requests to remove or relocate books, developing age-appropriate book collections, and periodically reviewing collections. Libraries also would have to submit a "compliance report" on their policies to lawmakers.
The bill also makes clear it would apply to "any children's book inventory maintained by a public library."
Lefor said he heard concerns of "unintended consequences" for the House-passed version of his bill, prompting amendments. Opponents said the previous version applied to entire libraries, not only children's sections.
"We really want to focus on (minors). Probably didn't do a good job of that to begin with," the top House Republican told the Senate panel.
Minot Public Library Director Janet Anderson cautioned the panel about the word pornography "being thrown around a lot this session."
"Let me just say it is harmful because we are being called pushers of pornography and we are being called groomers," Anderson told the senators.
Lefor said if both bills advance further, a House-Senate conference committee "if necessary" would look at both bills if they have "too much duplication."
Boehm has called schools and libraries "safe zones for activists" who are able to "disseminate their doctrine on perversion on minors." He cited "people working on research for months on this" who found such content in 40 libraries statewide.
The researchers looked up books "the American Library Association is having battles on, trying to defend sexually explicit material ... and we went and looked," Boehm told The Bismarck Tribune. "It's easy to look this information up."
The Bismarck Tribune emailed 27 public libraries around North Dakota about any challenges in the last five years to their materials as obscene and what result, if any, occurred. Eighteen libraries responded.
Of those, 14 reported no challenges on obscenity.
The Bismarck, Fargo, Minot and Valley City public libraries reported a combined nine challenges to materials as obscene.
Boehm said the few challenges suggest to him that "the material hasn't been found yet in those libraries. It's as simple as that."
Lefor said, "That's great. If there's not much objectionable material, I think that means that the libraries are doing a good job, but some have fallen through the cracks when some of these books get in there, and I think the Legislature needs to a send a strong message that we do not support having these types of books in libraries."
Additionally, the State Library reported one challenge to a book in the last 22 years, but not for obscenity.
The library in 2021 removed "If I Ran the Zoo" by Dr. Seuss after a request to move the book to the adult collection due to racist imagery. The library removed the book because it wasn't being checked out, according to State Librarian Mary Soucie.
Patrons of other libraries, including ones in Grand Forks and Mandan, took "request for reconsideration" forms but apparently did not submit them.
Several directors noted their libraries have formal policies for patrons to challenge or request reconsideration of materials in the collection.
Of the nearly 2.6 million items circulated in the last five years, the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library received two requests for reconsideration.
They were for Sarah S. Brannen's hamster version of "Uncle Bobby's Wedding," and "Tell Me About Sex, Grandma" by Anastasia Higginbotham. Both books were ultimately retained, according to Library Director Christine Kujawa.
The children's librarian provided the patrons with collection development policy information and professional reviews the library used when deciding to purchase the books. Kujawa also sent letters to the patrons with the information and decision.
A patron followed up with a request for a hearing with the library's board of trustees regarding Higginbotham's book but never responded to Kujawa's offer to coordinate and schedule a hearing, she said.
The Fargo, Minot and Valley City libraries retained or relocated materials requested for reconsideration.
Those included the film "The Ungovernable Force" and books "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe, and "Let's Talk About It" by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan.
"Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human" specifically has drawn the scorn of North Dakota Republican lawmakers, who cite its content and visual nudity in drawings as obscene.
Lefor has called the book "225 pages of despicable filth" and "beyond the bounds of decency."
The Valley City Barnes County Public Library held a public hearing earlier this year on the book for the public to give testimony to the library board. The board ultimately voted to move the book to the library's adult collection.
Library Director Anita Tulp said staff consider the process to be a success, though not everyone was totally happy with the decision. The book had been in the library's young adult section for nearly two years and was checked out twice before controversy arose.
"The book is still in the library, and our policy and procedure for reconsideration was followed leading to all concerned being able to voice their opinions and provide valuable information for our Library Board to make an informed decision," Tulp told The Bismarck Tribune. "It provided us with experience of putting our policy into motion and helped us update and revise it to make it a more clear and easy to follow procedure if we ever need to use it again."