Public displays at Dickinson Area Public Library spark legal and ethical concerns

Dickinson Area Public Library advocates patrons tell legislators to vote against book bills; unanimously vote to join class-action lawsuit against the state should bills pass.

Library Board
From left, Dickinson Library Board Members Brian Kopp, Johnna Douthit and Paula Martin discuss matters with Library Director Danielle Kappel and retiring library director Rita Ennen.
Ashley Koffler / The Dickinson Press

DICKINSON - Citizens' concerns regarding a public display at the Dickinson Area Public Library, which included signage and QR codes advocating against proposed legislation to ban 'sexually explicit' library books from libraries, were raised by a Dickinson community member during a city commission meeting on April 4.

The debate over the presence of specific content in public libraries has become a topic of widespread discussion. Two proposed bills in North Dakota have sparked controversy throughout the state, and the discussion has gained attention nationwide. The controversy centers around whether these bills are promoting censorship or safeguarding children from pornographic and mature content.

Library .jpg
A book display at the Dickinson Area Public Library warns the public of books that would possibly be removed if legislation is passed.
Contributed / Autumn Richard

House Bill 1205 would prohibit public libraries from keeping explicit sexual material in their children's collection inventory. Public libraries would have to develop a policy and process for reviewing their collections to ensure compliance; and Senate Bill 2360 amends the definition of "obscene material" and "obscene performance" and specifies penalties for displaying such material to minors.

Opponents of the two proposed bills in North Dakota are concerned that they promote censorship and limit intellectual freedom in public libraries. They argue that the bills infringe on First Amendment rights and that it should be the responsibility of parents to monitor their children's reading materials, rather than the government.

On the other hand, supporters of the bills argue that they aim to protect minors from sexually explicit materials, noting that public libraries should not be legally permitted to provide children with materials of a sexually graphic nature unchecked. Supporters of the bills also argue that the bills do not ban books for adults, but rather aim to regulate access for minors.


According to Dickinson resident Ruth Heley, the Dickinson Area Public Library posted signage asserting that some of the library’s catalog of books would be removed from library shelves as a direct result of the proposed legislation at the state legislature. The signage included copies of the bills and a scannable QR code taking patrons directly to a form in which they could contact their elected officials and demand they vote against the proposed legislation.

Library ban .jpg
A bookmark at the Dickinson Area Public Library displays a QR code directing users to a form on the North Dakota Library Association's website to vote no regarding two proposed bills.
Contributed / Autumn Richards

Heley saw the display after attending a library board meeting on Tuesday, March 14.

“I was surprised to see a display with alarmist signage telling me to check out books before they would be gone,” Heley said, noting that the display disturbed her on several levels as the library is a taxpayer funded and city government managed entity. “To have a publicly funded library try to affect the political process in this way, to try and directly influence my political decisions is unethical.”

Taxpayer-funded lobbying refers to the utilization of funds sourced either directly or indirectly from taxpayers for the purpose of political lobbying for or against candidates and or legislation. Legal experts consulted by The Press have stated that the question of whether the library violated the law by engaging in legislative and administrative advocacy presents a much more legally gray question.

Autumn Richard, a Dickinson resident who has been a vocal proponent of the bills and part of a group of concerned residents who conducted a citizen review of library content — finding 106 books of concern — said that she has also seen identical library displays at other libraries across the state that she feels are misleading.

According to both Heley and Richard, the QR codes were also printed as bookmarks and directed patrons to the website of the North Dakota Library Association — a professional association for librarians, library staff and library supporters.

“Those QR codes, all the bookmarks, they blatantly give a biased opinion… they don't inform you of the books and then tell you to make an informed decision on your own, they are telling you blatantly to vote no,” Richard said.

Richard said she feels that the NDLA has a biased opinion that is unjustly being inserted into public libraries.


“They are inserting it into our libraries and encouraging and affecting our political process in a way that affects, you know, the outcome that they want,” Richard said.

The signage on the book displays at the Dickinson Public Library have since been removed, a decision addressed during the meeting by City Attorney Christina Wenko.

City Attorney Christina Wenko advised that the display be removed and a neutral stance be maintained as the legislative process regarding the bills works itself out.
Jackie Jahfetson / The Dickinson Press

Wenko said that she was made aware of the display through another channel and having communicated with Deputy City Administrator Linda Carlson and the library director, recommended that the displays be taken down.

According to Wenko, the recommendation was based on the notion that the commission and city should remain neutral while the legislative process worked itself out.

“... that's the neutral position and the advice that I gave this board and I stand behind it and that is why the display was taken down,” Wenko said.

HB 1205 was introduced by House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, after citizen concerns and complaints on sexually explicit books were found to be accessible to children at the Dickinson Area Public Library. The library board ultimately rejected public requests for the removal of the sexually explicit books from shelves, opting instead to implement new control mechanisms.

Lefor’s bill defines "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 Dickinson Area Public Library Board made the unanimous decision to join the James River Valley Library System, and others, in a class action lawsuit against the North Dakota Legislature during their library board meeting on Tuesday, April 11.


The vote was 4-0, with board members John Odermann and April Frank absent. In a move to defend their interests, North Dakota librarians and board trustees have retained the legal services of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, who will represent them at no cost.

Allison is a news reporter from Phoenix, Arizona where she earned a degree in journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. After college, she worked as a middle school writing teacher in the valley. She has made her way around the U.S. driving from Arizona to Minnesota and eventually finding herself here in Dickinson. She has a passion for storytelling and enjoys covering community news.
What To Read Next
Get Local