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Port: Who knew our public libraries were such dens of iniquity?

"If we treat children like toddlers who must be protected from everything that might run contrary to what their parents have taught them, we aren't doing them any favors."

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Fargo Public Library, downtown.
Forum file photo
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MINOT, N.D. — It is instructive, before we delve into the censorious agenda some state lawmakers have brought to the Legislature in Bismarck this year, to review some recent folderol on the other side of the Red River over a professor showing her students some images of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

It happened at Hamline University, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Professor Erika López Prater, while teaching an art history class, displayed 14th-century Persian painting of the religious figure. Understanding that some, but not all, Muslims consider images of Muhammad to be offensive, the professor gave her students multiple warnings in advance that the painting would be displayed. She also gave students a way to avoid viewing the painting without it affecting their grades.

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Hamline University buildings are seen Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, in the snow in St. Paul. The university has been in the news recently amid a controversy about academic freedom.
Ben Hovland / MPR News

Despite these thoughtful efforts, a student accused López Prater, in a complaint to the school's administrators, of Islamophobia. The administrators agreed. They used that term, "Islamophobic," in their statement condemning López Prater and announcing her dismissal from the school.

The school then invited Jaylani Hussein, from the Minnesota chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who compared López Prater's class to teaching Nazism or child molestation. He even suggested that her teaching might invite violence. “You’ve seen what happened in the horrible tragedies of Charlie Hebdo,” Hussein said, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education , referring to the 2015 attack on the French newspaper which resulted in a dozen deaths .

López Prater, with great respect and sensitivity, displayed a painting that was created by a Muslim, for other Muslims, to glorify Muhammad, and Hamline University fired her and sided with the guy who thinks doing that sort of thing makes you Adolf Hitler.

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One administrator for the university said that academic freedom doesn't trump the right of students to not be “emotionally, intellectually, or professionally harmed.” A sentiment I'm sure the school would stand behind if those offended were, say, Catholics, right?

Anyway, Hamline, facing a righteous lawsuit from López Prater, is now walking back this stupidity. “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students," the school, which had previously said precisely that, is now claiming in a statement .

But let's leave the absurdities of this fiasco at Hamline, and come back to North Dakota, where some lawmakers, like the pompous pointy-heads in Minnesota, think their right not to be offended supersedes our nation's foundational commitment to free inquiry and expression.

I've written about one bill already. Senate Bill 2123 changes the statute that regulates the display of pornography and expands it to the point where great works of literature and depictions of iconic works of art would be prohibited from display in public.

But more troubling, because it's a bit less draconian, and thus more likely to pass, and because House Majority Leader Mike Lefor introduced it, is House Bill 1205 , inspired in part by a kerfuffle over a sex education book at the public library in Valley City.

The book is, "Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being Human." It's a graphic novel, and because it contains some images of pee-pees and boobies, and some frank talk about gender fluidity and homosexuality, a certain type of citizen finds it disgusting.

Reps. Mike Lefor and Vicky Steiner, R-District 37, watched the votes come in on the House floor Monday. Photo by Ellie Potter/The Dickinson Press
Rep. Mike Lefor
File photo Ellie Potter/Forum News Service

"I think the content of it is disgusting, that at the very least, public libraries should put it in a restricted area where (children) need to get permission from their parents to take a book out like this, but they're offering it to junior high school kids ... and when we grew up, we didn't need things like this," Rep. Lefor told The Bismarck Tribune in the context of an interview about HB 1205. "This is not a way to raise our kids, and we have to do everything we can to make sure that this doesn't get into the hands of children, especially without their parents' knowledge."

I suspect that when Lefor grew up, most of the sex education children got came gossip among the kids, informed to one degree or another by surreptitious glimpses of dad's Playboy magazines. I'm not sure the good old days were as good as some remember.

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Ironically, when a newspaper report about the book kicked off public outrage in Valley City, the book became more popular with citizens there. "The book had only been checked out two times" before the controversy, our Matt Henson reported . "Since then, the library's three copies of the book are usually all checked out."

Censorship is never quite as effective as the censors hope.

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After a robust public debate, the library in Valley City decided to keep the book, but move it to the adult section, which seems silly to me, but at least the book wasn't outright banned.

This brings us to the debate now going on in the legislature. Do the lawmakers in Bismarck really need to act? Must we have a knee-jerk response to this latest in a long line of moral panics in our society? To what extent are we obliged, as the administration at Hamline felt it was, to cater to a noisy minority of the perpetually offended?

I realize that my point of view on this maybe isn't yours. But your point of view can't necessarily trump mine. We're all citizens. This society belongs to all of us. Debates over which books should sit on a library shelf are nothing new, and we have local mechanisms — library boards, school boards, county commissions, city commissions, etc. — through which we can have those debates and try to reach an accord.

What we need from the law is flexibility. We need local communities to be empowered to make local decisions. What we don't need are written-in-stone prohibitions handed down from on high, be it from the capitol building in Bismarck, or the one in Washington, D.C.

And, really, we need to have more faith in our children, and in ourselves.

If the morals you're teaching your children are so fragile, if they're rooted so shallowly, that a graphic novel at the local library can tear them from the fertile soil of your children's minds, then maybe you aren't doing such a good job teaching them.

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If we treat children like toddlers who must be protected from everything that might run contrary to what their parents have taught them, we aren't doing them any favors.

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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