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Port: One North Dakota library is protesting legislative censorship this weekend

The Minot Public Library is hosting a silent "read-in" protesting bills before the North Dakota Legislature representing broad restrictions on the books and art that can be displayed publicly.

A quiet moment at the downtown Fargo Public Library
A person reads in a public library.
David Samson / The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — On Saturday, March 4, from 1 to 3 p.m., my local library here in Minot will be hosting a protest.

Since librarians organized it, it'll be a quiet one. A silent "read-in" aimed at protesting bills before the state Legislature in Bismarck targeting our right to read.

"North Dakota legislators have introduced HB 1205 & SB 2360, which would criminalize libraries and businesses for carrying certain books and movies based on a vague description of what is considered obscene," reads the succinct and entirely accurate description of the event shared by the Minot Public Library.

Each of these bills has passed their respective chambers. They have the backing of legislative leadership. House Majority Leader Mike Lefor, a Republican from Dickinson, introduced House Bill 1205 . Senate Majority Leader David Hogue, a Republican from Minot, is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 2306 .

These are not zany bills promoted by backbenchers. These calculated assaults on your liberty have support from the top ranks of the Republican majority in the Legislature.

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And here you thought Republicans were for limited government.

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People who believe in restrained government would reject this sort of paternalistic pap.

Of the two bills, SB 2360 is the more odious. It bans any book or work of art that "contains explicit sexual material" — a term the bill defines broadly as including even written descriptions of both "sexual intercourse" and "sexual activity" — from being displayed in a public space frequented by minors.

That would mean bookstores must take William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" off the shelves or relegate it to a cordoned-off "adult" section.

Walmart and Target might have to stop selling books entirely, because how many modern novels contain no sexual activity at all?

Libraries couldn't merely ensure that Voltaire's "Candide" was shelved in the grown-up section because kids aren't restricted to the children's library, nor should they be.

To be clear about how absurd this is, the iconic sculpture "Laocoon and his Sons," which has been on public display in Vatican City since the 16th century, couldn't be depicted in a public space in North Dakota. Or even in a book available in a venue accessible by the general public.

The courts would likely find these bills to be unconstitutional, though the litigation would be costly for taxpayers, and we shouldn't have to rely on judges to set lawmakers straight, not least because the judiciary isn't infallible either.

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We don't need these bills. They're a knee-jerk response to an absurd moral panic that has manufactured the perception of a problem where none exists. North Dakota's parents are more than capable of regulating the sort of books and art their children are exposed to. They don't need the government to do it for them.

On the afternoon of March 4, I'll be at the Minot public library with my family, protesting this nonsense. Maybe you should go to your library that day, too, and show your support for your librarians, and your disdain for pompous politicians who presume to inhibit your right to read.

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 rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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