‘In search of a problem’: Republicans butt heads over ‘harmful’ materials bill

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

The House on Wednesday passed a controversial bill to restrict materials children can view at libraries, the fourth iteration this year of a bill to crack down on books that Republicans deem are “harmful” to minors.

Proponents of the bill, House Bill 710, have argued it’ll keep graphic sexual books out of the hands of children, while opponents have said those books already aren’t placed in children’s sections and that the threat of lawsuits could lead libraries to remove any challenged material from their shelves.

The bill allows community members to file written requests to remove materials from a library’s shelves. The library or its board would then have 30 days to move the material, after which the community member could file a lawsuit for $250 in fines plus unlimited “actual damages.”

The bill draws on Idaho’s obscenity laws and incorporates the Miller test, a legal standard to determine what materials are obscene. That includes materials that appeal “to the prurient interest of minors as judged by the average person” and that depict sexual activity “patently offensive to the prevailing standards in the adult community.” The state’s obscenity law also includes acts of homosexuality, but exempts books with literary or educational value.

“What this bill actually is is codifying a relocation policy … that they are all going to follow,” Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa, who sponsored the bill, told House lawmakers, noting that not all libraries have such policies in place now. The bill would apply to public libraries as well as private and public school libraries.

Losing parties will have to pay attorneys’ fees, he told the Statesman, which he thinks could limit frivolous lawsuits.

Supporters of bill oppose LGBTQ+ content

Testimony in support of restricting “harmful” materials in recent weeks has been linked by sociologists to conspiracy theories like QAnon and has also focused on limiting media that feature LGBTQ+ characters or themes. One testifier said her child had seen a film cover that displayed “two men kissing,” which she thought the library should remove from public view.

Backers of the bill have declined to say whether they consider depictions of gay people obscene. When asked by an Idaho Statesman reporter whether he thought such a film should be taken off of shelves visible to children, Crane said he didn’t know.

“She has every right to ask that it be moved,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with her requesting that.”

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, who is Jaron’s brother and chair of a House committee that sent the bill to the floor, declined to say whether depictions of gay people should count as obscene.

“It’s not up to what Brent Crane thinks,” he told the Statesman, adding that any book challenges would have to meet the state’s definition of “harmful” to children, which dates from the 1970s.

Rep. Chris Mathias, D-Boise, said in written testimony that he believes the law violates the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment because of the state’s inclusion of “homosexuality” in its obscenity law. The law also mentions “sexual conduct” generally, but does not mention “any act of heterosexuality.” Mathias said that distinction creates a sex-based classification that targets gay sexuality and could violate constitutional rights.

House holds fiery debate on ‘harmful’ materials bill

Efforts in the past two years to crack down on library materials available to children have so far failed. Earlier this year, Jaron Crane and Sen. Geoff Schroeder, R-Mountain Home, separately introduced bills related to library materials. The two lawmakers then worked together on a new bill, which failed in the Senate last month by one vote.

Last year, Gov. Brad Little vetoed a similar bill that would have let parents claim damages over library materials their children were exposed to. Another bill that would have removed an exemption that librarians get from prosecution for disseminating “harmful” materials to minors failed to become law in 2022. That law would have allowed librarians who provide the materials to be jailed.

In a fiery debate on the House floor, Republican lawmakers argued over whether the bill addresses a real problem.

“The concept that it’s not going on anywhere is simply not true,” said Rep. Dale Hawkins, R-Fernwood, citing an article about the Kootenai County sheriff’s efforts last year to check out and refuse to return books he thought were inappropriate for children. Two of the books he objected to were a sex education book and a young adult novel about a girl who experiences sexual abuse and other struggles, according to the Spokesman-Review.

Rep. Lori McCann, R-Lewiston, said she has talked to librarians in her district who said they have had few to no book challenges in the last quarter century. She voted against the bill.

Rep. Kenny Wroten, R-Nampa, also said the problem is overblown. The legislation makes it seem “like it’s an epidemic here in Idaho,” he said, but most libraries already have review processes in place and rarely have issues.

“It’s a bill and legislation in search of a problem,” he added, calling the $250 rewards an “enticement.”

In testimony at hearings this year, several librarians have told lawmakers that pornography is not available to children at Idaho libraries.

Brent Crane said that if his younger brother’s bill didn’t pass, lawmakers would bring back a previous bill to allow prosecution of librarians. He and Wroten — who represent the same district — quarreled on the House floor, after which Crane asked the House to take a break.

“You better pick which one you like,” Brent Crane said on the floor, adding that a parent in his district filmed their 15-year-old daughter who was allowed to check out books that he thinks violate the state’s obscenity law. “To say that this does not exist in Idaho libraries is patently false.”

Want the latest news on the Idaho Legislature? Sign up for Capitol Letters, a newsletter we send for every day of the legislative session. We'll keep you up to date on bills in the process of becoming law.