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Revived ‘harmful to minors’ library materials bill advances in Idaho Legislature

Dozens of people wait outside a committee room on Jan. 15, 2023, at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise shortly before a public hearing on a library materials bill.
Photo by Clark Corbin/Idaho Capital Sun
Dozens of people wait outside a committee room on Jan. 15, 2023, at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise shortly before a public hearing on a library materials bill.

The Idaho House of Representatives to vote on replacement to last year’s vetoed library bill

A new bill seeking to prohibit public and school libraries from making “material harmful to minors” available to children under 18 is heading to the floor of the Idaho House of Representatives for a vote.

On Monday, the Idaho Legislature’s House State Affairs Committee voted along party lines to send House Bill 384 to the House floor with a recommendation to pass it.

House Bill 384 is a revived and tweaked version of last year’s libraries material bill, House Bill 314, which Gov. Brad Little vetoed.

The new bill is similar to last year’s bill, with a couple of changes made by sponsoring Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa.

Like last year’s legislation, this year’s bill prohibits school or public libraries from giving or making any materials available to minors that “depicts nudity, sexual conduct, or sado-masochistic abuse and that is harmful to minors.”

The bill also prohibits libraries from making available any materials that depict “sexual excitement, sexual conduct or sado-masochistic abuse that, taken as a whole, is harmful to minors.”

Finally, the bill also prohibits school and public libraries from making available “any other material harmful to minors,” which was a passage of the bill that opponents expressed concern with during a nearly two-hour public hearing on the bill Monday at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.

How is this year’s library materials bill different from the 2023 version?

Little vetoed last year’s bill, writing that ambiguous language in the bill could create unintended consequences for libraries and their patrons. Little also took opposition to a section of last year’s bill that would allow parents or guardians to file a $2,500 lawsuit for a violation of the bill, which Little said amounted to creating a bounty system that would increase libraries’ costs.

In response to Little’s veto, Crane said he reduced the fine from $2,500 last year down to $250 this year. This year’s bill also creates new procedures before a lawsuit can be filed where a minor, parent or legal guardian who obtains the “harmful materials” must provide written notice asking for the school or library to move the materials to a section of the library designated for adults within 30 days.

Under this year’s bill, if the school or library board does not move the material as requested, the parent, legal guardian or minor could file a lawsuit for $250 plus actual damages and any other relief provided by law, including attorney fees.

Crane told the House State Affairs Committee that the bill is designed to protect minors from harmful materials without banning or burning books.

“You will not find the word ‘ban’ or ‘burn’ or anything of that nature in this legislation; this is a relocation bill,” Crane said during Monday’s meeting “There is no book banning. There is no book burning. This creates a process that is fair for both parties. One side may want certain materials in the library and the other may not.

“What we have to do is compromise, keeping all the material in the library is what this legislation does and just relocating it to its rightful location within the library is satisfying to all parties,” Crane added.

Several librarians, teachers voice opposition to library materials bill

During Monday’s hearing, 11 of the 19 people who testified about the bill were opposed to it.

More than 100 people showed up for the meeting, filling a Statehouse hallway outside the hearing room. Staffers and security officers opened additional hearing rooms for overflow seating.

Several opponents said libraries already have policies in place to handle parental concerns about library materials and they worried the language about materials “harmful to minors” was broad and could be interpreted in different ways by different people.

Some opponents also worry the reduced $250 lawsuits would still place an undue financial burden on libraries because the costs of actual damages and attorneys fees allowed in the bill would likely greatly exceed $250.

Robert Wright, who has served as director of the Idaho Falls Public Library for almost 20 years, said libraries cannot afford to implement the bill. After meeting with the city’s attorney in Idaho Falls, Wright said he believes if the bill passes, the Idaho Falls Public Library would need to prohibit anyone under 18 from entering the upstairs floor of the library to set it aside for adults in an effort to comply with the bill. He said that would require locking elevators that staff cannot physically observe at all times and paying a staff member to stand at the ramp leading to the upper floor to prevent minors from entering the space. For smaller libraries with only one room and limited space, Wright worried they would be unable to comply with the bill at all.

Plus, Wright said his library already has a policy in place for parents to challenge the appropriateness of materials in the library.

“The practical part of implementing this bill is problematic,” Wright told legislators.

“I work in Idaho Falls Public Library. We are one of the largest libraries in eastern Idaho. We cannot afford to do this.”

Isabella Burgess, a college student and associate librarian for the Meridian Library District, said the bill targets LGBTQ+ people because the state’s definition of “sexual conduct” that is cited in the bill includes any act of homosexuality.

“Representatives, the homophobia in this bill is blatant,” Burgess told the committee. “The bill’s definition of sexual conduct is incorrect and does not align with widely accepted definitions in any popular dictionary. Homosexuality does not equate to obscenity. It is your choice to sexualize children’s books. It is absolutely essential that we have books that represent every member of our communities, that are accessible to every age range.”

Heidi Robbins, a teacher and librarian from Rigby, told legislators Monday that the bill is effectively censoring books and targeting LGBTQ+ individuals and other marginalized communities.

“This group of students already has some of the highest incidences of bullying and suicide and more,” Robbins told legislators. “Having literature where they are represented cannot only help them feel that they belong but can also teach their peers that they are not a demographic to be feared or shunned. They are human beings who contribute to society like anyone else.”

Supporters say bill will make libraries safer for children, families

On the other side of the debate, supporters of the bill argued – often without providing specific examples – that today’s children are being “hypersexualized” and regularly exposed to harmful graphic sexual materials in libraries.

A couple of people who spoke in favor of the bill held up books they said they obtained in Idaho public libraries that contain inappropriate or graphic sexual material. But they didn’t say what several of the books were or what each of their objections were. Instead, one woman who carried an armload of books to Monday’s hearing on the bill passed written summaries of the material she objected to to legislators.

Karen Jackson, a Twin Falls resident who provided remote video testimony Monday, told legislators the problem is widespread without providing specific examples.

“I have personally engaged in research delving into many books, likely hundreds, widely accessible in our public school and libraries across Idaho, not just in one isolated area,” Jackson said. “These materials seek to influence the minds of children with explicit sexual content. The abundance of objectionable material is considerable. And I, for obvious reasons, I cannot quote any specific content within my own testimony here. Regardless of the intention of the authors, the content of these authors pervert the minds of our children, normalize behavior which would hurt the children severely if acted upon and substantially increase a child’s vulnerability to sexual predators.”

Jackson did not provide evidence that accessing material in libraries makes children vulnerable to sexual predators.

In support of her testimony, Jackson cited Tim Ballard, who has said children who are intended for sexual trafficking are “conditioned” through exposure to pornography to make them more compliant.

Ballard is the former CEO of an anti-sex trafficking organization who stepped aside from his group Operation Underground Railroad following an investigation into claims of sexual misconduct, Vice News reported.

Jennifer Holmes, a parent and former public school teacher from Post Falls, testified that once when her kids were looking for books, she noticed a DVD in a local library that featured a cover with two men kissing. Holmes told legislators she moved the DVD out of view, placed it on the top of a shelf and asked the library to remove the video. Holmes told legislators she was told it was her responsibility to monitor her children.

Holmes said her family doesn’t go to that library anymore and eventually stopped going to the library altogether. She urged legislators to pass the bill.

“I believe (House) Bill 384 will be a blessing to parents, especially those who have more than one child,” Holmes said. “This bill will cause the library to be a safer place for children to explore without having their parent with them every second.”

Idaho Democrats opposed the library materials bill but were overruled by Republican supermajority

On Monday, all 11 Republicans on the House State Affairs Committee voted to advance the new library materials bill, while both Democrats opposed it. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, made an unsuccessful attempt to delay the committee’s vote until Tuesday to allow members of the public who were not called to testify on Monday an opportunity to submit written testimony to legislators. Instead, Republicans on the committee voted against Gannon’s motion and then voted to advance the bill.

If a majority of members of the Idaho House voted to pass the bill, it will be sent to the Idaho Senate for consideration.

Last year, the Idaho House voted 40-30 to pass House Bill 314, the new bill’s predecessor.

Idaho Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Idaho Capital Sun maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Christina Lords for questions: Follow Idaho Capital Sun on Facebook and Twitter.