Pornography or protected speech? Lefor, Steiner defend library restrictions bill
With HB 1205, Reps Mike Lefor and Vicky Steiner would prohibit "sexually explicit content" in public libraries. Facing an uphill battle, the pair remain united in their commitment to see it passed.
DICKINSON — House Bill 1205 was introduced in North Dakota by House Majority Leader Mike Lefor and Rep. Vicky Steiner, and seeks to prohibit public libraries from shelving certain books with sexually explicit imagery. The bill includes exemptions for certain reading material with, "serious artistic or anthropological significance," as well as "materials used in science courses, including materials used in biology, anatomy, psychiatry or sexual education classes."
Lefor and Steiner, both representing Dickinson, jointly introduced the legislation earlier this month in response to controversy surrounding sexualized teen and children’s books at the Dickinson Area Public Library among others in the state.
ND Century Code subsection 12.1-27.1-03.1 already restricts private businesses, individuals and bookstores from promoting such materials for commercial gain. Those in violation of this statute can be charged with objectionable materials to minors - display or performance, a class B misdemeanor. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine. The same would apply to librarians and staff found in violation of the new bill.
12.1-27.1 by inforumdocs on Scribd
The bill leaves the exemptions in place for multiple types of institutions in the state, most notably schools. It modifies existing statute to read, “The above may not be construed to include a school, college, university, museum or art gallery.”
The changes would prohibit libraries from maintaining explicit sexual materials with visual depiction demonstrating any of 12 categories, including deviant sexual intercourse, sadomasochistic abuse, human masturbation or sexual perversion among others.
HB 1205 by inforumdocs on Scribd
The bill has received mostly negative press and significant backlash from certain interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who argue that it contradicts the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the right to freedom of speech. When asked about the prospects of his proposal becoming law, Lefor said that remains to be seen, noting that he’s doing everything within his power to make it happen.
He acknowledged that many of his colleagues are opposed to it, but said he’s been trying to make them aware of exactly what is in these books. He added that he’s not concerned with outrage coming from those who live thousands of miles away.
“The biggest criticisms I get are not from people in North Dakota, although there are some. But it’s a lot of people in Washington, California and other states. I could absolutely care less about their opinions. When you talk about North Dakota and North Dakota people, that's who we represent. And I do care about North Dakotans' opinions, even if they’re different from my own, but certainly not people from out of state,” Lefor said during a Thursday phone interview with The Dickinson Press.
He added that he's deeply concerned about the well being of adolescents in the Roughrider State — expressing his desire for it be a place that fosters the growth of strong, virtuous citizens who of high moral turpitude. Lefor also noted the mental health detriment of being exposed to sex too early in life.
"There's no disagreement among mental health professionals. That front part of the brain that conceptualizes or assesses long-term consequences and response for impulse control; and the part where judgment and reason are exercised remains underdeveloped until after age 20. Adolescents at age 13 don't have the maturity to be able to consent to this type of activity. And the book is about 220 some pages of disgusting, repulsive material," Lefor said.
‘Kinks and fantasies’
Many critics of these restrictions such as Rita Ennen, who was Dickinson’s library director during most of the controversy and stepped down at the end of 2022, have argued that what’s on library shelves is largely a moot point because so many children have internet access on their phones.
But Lefor said this ignores the fact that many parents utilize device controls and content blockers to protect their children from pornographic and other potentially harmful websites. He also said he’s studied the Dickinson library book that stirred the most controversy among citizens, “Let’s talk about it: A teen’s guide to sex, relationships and being a human,” pointing out that it guides readers on how to best use their devices to sext each other and learn about sexual deviancy.
“I realize they can go on the internet and search whatever they want, but this book even shows you (how to do it)... It’s frankly repulsive,” Lefor said, citing a quote from page 164 that encourages teens to “research kinks and fantasies on the internet.” It further states, “The online world is chockablock full of pornography: professionals and amateurs alike sharing their sexy adventures online.”
During a Jan. 17 House Judiciary Committee hearing on HB 1205 Cody Schuler, ACLU North Dakota’s advocacy manager, testified against the bill. He invoked the U.S. Constitution and contended that HB 1205 contradicts everything his organization has stood for since it was established just over a century ago.
“Since its founding in 1920, the ACLU has opposed censorship in all of its forms, from books to radio, to film, internet, and television. We have consistently fought to make sure Americans have the right to say, think, read and write whatever they want, without fear of reprisal,” he said. “The First Amendment does not allow the government to get rid of or limit the use of books or ideas because they are controversial, unpopular or offensive.”
Schuler recalled the embarrassment and awkwardness he experienced as a sixth grader when he had to ask his parents and teachers about such topics, and argued these books provide useful information to adolescents.
“I have not explored the let’s talk about it book in detail, but from what I have seen it answers questions for kids,” Schuler said. “If I had a child, I would want that child to have the information they need and to be able to discuss it with me… It is not the government’s job to outline what can or cannot be on a shelf.”
‘Protecting the innocence’
Steiner co-sponsored and helped Lefor introduce the bill. She said she’s heard from parents who will no longer take their children to Dickinson’s public library out of concern for the lurid materials that are made accessible for any child to grab off a shelf.
“We're charged with not only protecting the innocence of our children, but having some standards for our community and what's acceptable in our public library. And that standard has not been met with these books. And I think the citizens have every right to ask that they be removed,” Steiner told The Press, referencing the stipulation mandating that public libraries evaluate patron complaints about sexually explicit materials.
She expressed disappointment in the Dickinson Public Library Board’s policy responses to public indignation about the books.
Steiner also testified during the hearing.
“We need to give this our attention. My constituents, the majority of them, are outraged by what we've seen in the Dickinson (Area Public) Library,” she said.
Dickinson resident Ruth Heley, who said she’s lived in the city since 1994, testified remotely from a digital chatroom. She rejected the ACLU arguments that this legislation violates First Amendment intellectual freedoms.
“This bill does not prevent the right to free speech and intellectual freedom. After all, these authors have been able to write these sexually explicit books as guaranteed by the First Amendment. They are allowed to publish them, they are allowed to have them for sale through the internet and whatever stores choose to carry them,” Heley said, arguing that taxpayers should not be forced to be complicit in disseminating such materials. “I further propose that these authors have abused their intellectual rights by writing material that encourages harmful behavior directed at some of the most vulnerable people in our society… More galling is due that this is a publicly funded institution paid for by the taxpayers, I as the taxpayer am asked to pay for these items.”
‘Sex is a funny word’
Another Stark County woman who testified in favor of the bill was Autumn Richard. She insisted on its necessity by highlighting the content in some of the 107 books she found in the Dickinson Area Public Library.
“Another book that I have from the library in Dickinson is called sex is a funny word with the recommended reading ages 8 to 11,” she said. “One chapter in the book states that, ‘Like other holes in the body, the anus is usually very sensitive, which means it can feel good to touch but also can hurt if you are rough with it.’ There is also a drawing on page 108 of a young girl with her family at a picnic table outside with her hand in her pants and a smile on her face, clearly stimulating herself.”
Richard underscored her belief that HB 1205 passes legal scrutiny by pointing to five other bills restricting sexually explicit content, mostly in schools, that were passed throughout the country in 2022.
The text of Lefor’s bill closely resembles that of a Missouri law, SB 775, restricting materials in public and private school k-12 libraries. That law took effect in August. Others include Florida HB 1467, Utah HB 374 and Tennessee’s Age Appropriate Materials Act. Oklahoma’s HB 3702, signed by Gov. Kevin Stitt in May, appears to be the only one of these that addresses both public libraries and school libraries.
Richard also compiled a categorized list of 107 Dickinson library books she and other conservative activists consider unacceptable for accessibility to children.
List of 107 library books by inforumdocs on Scribd
North Dakota Library Association President Kerrianne Boetcher expressed staunch opposition to the bill. Like Schuler she appealed to First Amendment rights, declaring the bill tantamount to censorship.
“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,” Boetcher stated in a press 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.”
During a Jan. 10 discussion with The Press about SB 2123, which is similar in nature but has no cosponsors and much less traction in the General Assembly, freshman Sen. Dean Rummel, R-Dickinson, said he is also opposed to such restrictions, albeit for much different reasons. On Friday Rummel confirmed that he opposes HB 1205 as well.
“I like local control. So that's why we have library boards and that's why we have city commissions,” Rummel said. “I just don't like to see things dictated at the state level that can be handled locally.”
If Lefor’s bill survives the legislative gauntlet and gets signed by Gov. Burgum, it will not become law until March 31, 2024.