A bill that would open public schools, libraries, museums and their employees to criminal liability for displaying or disseminating to minors material deemed “obscene” was heard at the Capitol on Thursday.
Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, carried House Bill 234 which removes exemptions from schools, libraries and museums, as well as employees such as teachers and librarians, from prosecution under Montana law that currently covers commercial enterprises. Penalties could include a fine of $500-$1,000, up to six months in jail, or both.
Phalen and supporters touted the bill as protecting children from accessing material inappropriate for their age.
“By doing this not only will it reduce the amount of obscene material shown in public schools, libraries and museums, but it will also penalize these entities in violation of this bill,” Phalen said.
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Supporters also alleged a double standard between restrictions on business and public entities. A number of parents testified about concerns that their children could access material they deem inappropriate without their knowledge from a school or with a library card.
“Because obscene material has to be covered in gas stations and book stores, it stands to reason it should not be peddled to children in schools, libraries and museums as well,” said Darin Gaub, with the group Restore Liberty. “Those who do attempt to put obscene materials into the hands of children regardless of where they are must be held accountable.”
Supporters also included Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, who told the committee, “There should never be, ever be obscene material or pornographic instruction in any of our Montana public schools.”
But wide-ranging opposition challenged the substance of the bill, its origins and consequences for material that may offend but do not meet a somewhat ambiguous definition of “obscenity” in state law. Some opponents pointed to a national movement focusing on books and libraries that has sought to remove certain books.
“This bill is a national issue that by design is meant to stir up anger and fear and make us forget about the decency of our own neighbors who do these job, our librarians, teachers and museum directors that this bill puts at risk,” Sam Forstag with the Montana Libraries Association, said.
Among the books mentioned during the hearing was “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Mai Kobabe that has been championed by the LGBTQ community, but has also been the subject of removal in some states under criticism that it contains sexual imagery. S.K. Rossi representing the city of Bozeman made the argument that the bill would target LGBTQ and transgender youth, calling HB 234 “bullying.”
“I do appreciate that one of the proponents mentioned the book “Gender Queer,” and made the argument that this is not about LGBTQ issues,” Rossi said. “I tend to disagree. Generally these censorship bills tend to pop up across the country in response to the availability of materials and books that support LGBTQ youth and especially trans youth.”
Librarians and public employee representatives argued that vetting of materials is already addressed in processes, including processes for objecting to materials. Adding additional criminal penalties would only work to take away local control, remove the role of parents and guardians to decide materials for children, push censorship of materials and increase costs for liability insurance.
Republicans on the committee repeatedly questioned opponents on whether current law represents a double standard and whether young students should have access to obscene material. Responders often pushed back, saying the bill opens up entities to attack over materials that have been professionally vetted, and while maybe offensive to some people, are not obscene.
Retired Baptist pastor Jack Longbine opposed the bill, and said that “even the Bible itself could be called obscene” due to depictions of rape and violent murder. The bill could inspire backlash from the young people who it is attempting to protect, he said.
In closing on his bill, Phalen said he was inspired by his grandchildren and “I want them to grow up in a society that allows them to be children,” adding, “If the libraries don’t have this type of materials, they have nothing to worry about.”
The committee did not take immediate action on the bill.