Port: Amendment significantly improves one of North Dakota's two book ban bills

"In a win against censorship, a bill before lawmakers in Bismarck aimed at regulating content in public schools and libraries has been narrowed to apply only to content intended for children."

A library patron browses for books.
File photo

MINOT, N.D. — Last week Sen. Janne Myrdal joined my co-host Chad Oban and me on my Plain Talk podcast for what was a respectful, albeit heated, discussion about two book ban bills making their way through the Legislature in Bismarck.

Today Myrdal, who afterward told me she enjoyed our debate, seems to have taken some of our points against the legislation to heart. She offered an amendment in the Senate Judiciary Committee today that significantly improved one of the two bills.

House Bill 1205 , introduced by House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, was, as introduced, the less odious of the bills in that it at least restricted its censorship to public libraries as opposed to Senate Bill 2360 , introduced by Sen. Keith Boehm, which seeks to censor the book offerings of private retailers as well.

But Myrdal's amendment to HB1205, which was adopted by the Judiciary Committee this morning on a 6-0 vote (with one committee member not voting), significantly narrows the scope of the legislation, aiming it only at the content available in children's libraries.

Here's the amendment, which can be a little confusing to read. The black text represents what is currently in law. The red, struck-out text are the changes to law the original bill would have made. The green sections are the changes made by the amendment.


As you can see, among the changes is a narrowing definition of what constitutes verboten content. The previous definition was so broad as to make any allusion to things like sex in any content, be it intended for adults or children, illegal.

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Under this amendment, it would mean only content that "appeals to the prurient interest of minors" or 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 "lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."

The amendment also narrows the application of the bill from the entire library to those portions of it serving children.

I remain opposed to this legislation because I believe it's unnecessary. I think the lawmakers who are advancing this legislation are having a knee-jerk reaction to a moral panic driven more by social media campaigns and sensational politics than the on-the-ground reality of the work our libraries, librarians, and teachers do.

I don't believe that the attitude about our libraries held by many in the Legislature lines up with the views of the general public. Faye Seidler, an LBGTQ activist, shared an analysis with me of the committee work on HB1205 when it was before the House. She measured things like the number testifying for and against the bill, the amount of time spent testifying, and even the number of words submitted for and against.

The against side was definitely more active, and yet the lawmakers came down on the other side:

Was Sen. Myrdal persuaded by the conversation we had on my podcast? Maybe, though I suspect what spoke louder was the general public outcry about these bills, with the majority arguing that they are a bridge too far.

Again, I do not think we have a problem in our state's libraries. I don't think this legislation is necessary. I think it was introduced to placate a small, bullying, and very loud minority. But if the Legislature is going to pass a bill, at least this version of HB1205 is far less harmful than what was initially introduced.


And it's better, by a country mile, than what SB 2360 is.

Cynicism about politics is fashionable, but let this movement on HB 1205 demonstrate that showing up, and having a say, really does make a difference.

Of course, this debate isn't over. Lawmakers will likely look to combine these two bills at some point, since they're addressing the same thing, and the outcome we citizens have to live with will hinge on what that legislation looks like.

They're going to pass something. Both of these bills passed their respective chambers by large margins. But Myrdal's amendment signals that they're at least moving away from their more censorious impluses.

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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