Proposed Bills Could Take Books off Library Shelves
By Laura Simmons
The passing of ND House Bill 1205 and ND Senate Bill 2360, which would prevent sexually explicit books from being in public libraries, has prompted national discourse over what some are considering “book bans.”
The North Dakota House and Senate each passed a bill to amend North Dakota Century Code 12.1-27.1, which focuses on obscenity control.
HB 1205 says a public library may not have books that contain explicit sexual material, which is defined as images that portray masturbation, sex, deviant sex, direct physical stimulation of genitals, sadomasochistic abuse or postpubertal human genitals.
SB 2360 goes a step further to include written depictions of explicit sexual material. These bills were created in response to what the bills’ sponsors called obscene and pornographic books in their local libraries.
However, some worry the bills are going too far.
“Once we start getting into these types of bills where we're censoring any form of free speech, even if it is intended for reasonable purposes, they open the door to a lot of devious factors: a lot of people that might use it to their advantage to continue an agenda that will restrict society more and more until we no longer have diversity of thought,” Senator Ryan Braunberger (Democrat) said.
Braunberger voted against SB 2360 for multiple reasons. One, he said the language was too broad and up for interpretation. For example, he said the bill could restrict the Bible from being in libraries, citing the passage about Sodom and Gomorrah.
Two, currently, SB 2360 doesn’t specify a location within libraries that this law would affect, according to Braunberger. Therefore, even books in the adult section could be removed.
Three, Braunberger said he thinks it’s important to have sex education books available for adolescents.
Senator Bob Paulson (Republican) co-sponsored SB 2360 after discovering what he called obscene books in his local school library.
“I believe this bill will address the problems I discovered, and I’m happy with it in its current state,” Paulson wrote in an email to the High Plains Reader.
Paulson said he thinks past U.S. Supreme Court decisions, such as Island Trees School District v. Pico, can help define terms that don’t have concrete legal definitions, such as who a “reasonable person” is.
Island Trees School District v. Pico ruled that students have First Amendment rights and therefore removing books based on content is unconstitutional censorship. However, a book can be removed if it has strong sexual themes. The courts said community standards may be taken into account when deciding whether or not books are obscene or pornographic.
“So, here is an example of a term ‘community standards’ that may not be defined in law, but I would say is as commonly understood as terms such as ‘average’ or ‘reasonable people,’” Paulson wrote.
On February 24, 2023 Taylor Brorby published an opinion piece in The New York Times titled “The Real Reason North Dakota Is Going After Books and Librarians.”
He said these bills will target LGBTQ+ content. Brorby referred to terminology within SB 2360 that he believes references queer content. For example, SB 2360 contains “sexual conduct, whether normal or perverted,” “appeals to a prurient interest,” “deviant sexual intercourse,” and “obscene performance.”
“(SB 2360) is simultaneously specific, yet sufficiently vague that would allow it to be open to subjective interpretation,” Brorby said. “What you might think of as obscene material might not be relatively close to what I would consider to be obscene material. Given the current climate in North Dakota, we'll see (SB 2360) more proportionately applied to material related to the queer community.”
Brorby said sex is still taboo in North Dakota where some people can’t use proper anatomical language. He said if you watched the bills’ hearings, there were grown men who couldn’t say the word penis. This is the contemporary North Dakota standard, Brorby said.
Brorby said libraries are safe, private places for queer or questioning individuals. But, he said these bills could take that away and make North Dakota a scary place for queer people.
“If all of a sudden I was Google searching, ‘How do I know if I'm gay?’ and my parents were tracking that at home, that could become very dangerous depending on the type of home situation you have,” Brorby said. “We're talking about not allowing people to have access to tools and materials that can help them stay alive.”
Brorby said if people don’t want these bills to be passed, they should email their representatives and the governor. He also suggested people go to their local library to ask how they can help.
“The great thing about a library is it's supposed to open the world up to you,” Brorby said. “This is a direct attempt to keep a person's world very small and very confined.”
Representative Vicky Steiner (Republican) co-sponsored HB 1205. She said they are not banning books. The High Plains Reader was explicitly told by Representative Steiner to NOT say North Dakota is banning books in the headline.
“The bill is about pornography for children,” Steiner said. “I am definitely opposed to pornography for children.”
Steiner referred to the graphic novel “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan. Steiner said the book explained how to have anal sex, how to sext naked pictures of one’s body to friends and had a chapter about kinks, fantasies and porn.
Steiner read an excerpt from the graphic novel: “But there's nothing wrong with enjoying some porn; it's a fun sugary treat!"
“Comments like that to really young people who don't even know what pornography is is inappropriate,” Steiner said. “In Dickinson, we do not want to expose them to that.”
“Let’s Talk About It” received backlash in Valley City after Ian Woessner, a reporter for The Valley City Times Record, wrote an article about the book.
Melissa Lloyd, the Valley City Barnes County Public Library youth services coordinator, said “Let’s Talk About It” is not pornographic but is sex education. She said the book was housed in the young adult nonfiction collection.
The book arrived March 2021 and sat on the shelf until August 2022, Lloyd said. If a book has low circulation, it is eventually removed from the collection through the weeding process. After Woessner’s article, the library had to order two more copies to meet the demand.
Now the book is housed in the adult nonfiction collection after the Library Board voted 5-1 to move it after citizens filled out a request for reconsideration form and then requested a hearing. At the hearing, none of the people in attendance said they wanted the book removed from the collection.
Lloyd said in her 10 years at the library, this is the first time anyone filled out a request for reconsideration form.
Lloyd said she does not support HB 1205 or SB 2360 because she doesn’t think a librarian should be charged with criminal activities for trying to serve their community.
“As a public library, we have to have a variety of materials that represent lots of different viewpoints,” Lloyd said. “(This) doesn't mean you have to agree with it. Even as a librarian, we have books on our shelves that I'm like, ‘I don't like this book. I don't think anybody should read this,’ but that's my choice. I'm not going to prohibit anyone else from making their own choice about that book.”
Lloyd said it is the parents’, not the librarian’s job, to decide what a minor can and cannot read.
President of the Valley City Library Board Hilde Van Gijssel explained the current systems to monitor the content within libraries, focusing on Valley City.
Valley City has a Collection Development Policy that drives decisions for what is added to the collection. The librarians are responsible for the new materials because they are trained in collection development. There are additional guidelines when placing books in the children’s library and the teens and young adult section.
“Buying items for a collection is not personal preference,” Gijssel said. “There's a system behind it because the library is for everybody.”
However, sometimes items slip through, according to Gijssel. Therefore, there is the reconsideration procedure. First, the dissatisfied library patron should talk to the library for an explanation. If the patron is still dissatisfied, they can fill out the reconsideration form. The library director reviews the form and makes a decision. If the patron is dissatisfied with the decision, they can ask for a public hearing. At this public hearing, people can sign up to talk for a maximum of four minutes. Based on the evidence presented, the library board makes a decision.
“I absolutely think that this process works,” Gijssel said. “When people have a problem we want to know and this process is designed to get that kind of input.”
Gijssel said she does not support HB 1205 or SB 2360.
“The way the bills are written is that when a patron complains, the book has to come off the shelf and there's no way of countering that.” Gijssel said. “We had a person that walked in our library and said, I don't like that book because there are two people kissing. If that happens, we have to remove the book from the shelf.”
Deven Styczynksi, who unsuccessfully ran for the Fargo School Board in 2022, said he doesn’t have a problem if the government tells a government institution to restrain itself.
“Other parts of the Century Code are very, very clear about not providing material that is lewd or lascivious in nature to minors, which I don't think is an outlandish position,” Styczynksi said.
Styczynksi questioned that if certain books can’t be read on the radio without a fine from the Federal Communications Commission or they can’t be read at school boards, then are these books appropriate for children?
“You can't have your cake and eat it too,” Styczynksi said.
However, Styczynksi said the bills are poorly written, especially HB 1205, which he said can’t be saved. For SB 2360, he said he’d like to see clarification about what books are available to which age group because he never trusts the government to not overstep.
“You have both sides clamoring for censorship for very different reasons,” Styczynksi said. “Like the left absolutely wants books like ‘Johnny the Walrus’ banned, which is basically the inverted idea to ‘Gender Queer.’ You have both sides clamoring and complaining about the exact same thing and all in the guise of “Oh won’t someone think of the children.”
Representative Steiner said HB 1205 will most likely be merged with SB 2360. She said HB 1205 could be killed on the Senate’s side while SB 2360 would be amended by the House to include portions of HB 1205. This amended bill would then go back to the Senate to be approved before it could be signed into law by the Governor.
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