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Politics & Government

House GOP backs criminal charges for librarians lending "harmful" books to kids

Two shelves of library books angled toward a disappearing perspective point
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House Republicans overwhelmingly approved of criminally charging librarians who expose minors to “harmful materials.”

The more than hour-long debate centered on just what would be considered obscene under the bill.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) attempted to ask about a young adult novel by Judy Blume that included themes of masturbation, erections and wet dreams.

But her debate was halted over objections. Rubel said that illustrates just how subjective the line is.

“I truly don’t know as I stand here,” she said. “How in the world is any librarian facing potential criminal sanctions going to know? They absolutely cannot and I think as a result this is absolutely unconstitutionally vague and ambiguous.”

Under existing Idaho law, it’s been illegal for anyone to sell or expose children to pornography for decades. That law also prohibits descriptions of sexual excitement, as well as “any other material harmful to minors.”

But public libraries, schools and museums have had an exemption from complying with that law.

Lawmakers had a chance to review materials in a “super-secret folder” outside of the House floor that are allegedly found in public libraries.

Rep. Bruce Skaug (R-Nampa) took offense to those examples.

“I would rather my 6-year-old grandson start smoking cigarettes tomorrow than get a view of this stuff one time at the public library or anywhere else,” Skaug said.

It’s not immediately clear what was in that “super-secret folder,” though examples brought up in a public hearing last week focused largely on books that depicted LGBTQ characters.

“Yeah, it’s a super-secret folder and it’s super-secret because it is so disgusting,” said Rep. Ron Nate (R-Rexburg).

For him, Nate said these criminal charges would only come into play if a librarian or a school violated a parent’s trust.

“I would rather err on the side of a librarian or two feeling persecuted or feeling worried than having children feel polluted or damaged because of what is being served up in schools and libraries,” he said.

Rep. Julianne Young (R-Blackfoot) agreed, saying, “Free speech is not more important than protecting a child.”

If convicted, a librarian could face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Because of that potential, Rep. Steve Berch (D-Boise) said librarians, museum curators and teachers would be filled with dread.

“They would be encouraged to sanitize, to censor for fear of being prosecuted, persecuted by groups that don’t like certain content,” said Berch. “That’s not the America I grew up in.”

Rep. Greg Chaney (R-Caldwell) said he was initially “cautious” about the concept of the bill. But existing carve-outs in the law for materials that hold “serious literary, artistic or scientific value,” Chaney said, gave him confidence its use wouldn’t be widespread.

“I recognize that five minutes of one of my kids getting a hold of a friend’s cellphone is more dangerous than anything this bill is going to stop,” said Rep. Greg Chaney (R-Caldwell).

But Chaney said he views the legislation as a way to “stem the tide” of potentially obscene materials getting into the hands of kids.

“This isn’t calling for a book burning out in front of the capitol. This is reasonable,” he said.

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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