Statehouse roundup, 3.11.24: Lawmakers spar with library supporters over latest ‘harmful’ material bill

Tempers were high Monday during a hearing on the latest attempt to restrict content accessible to minors in public and school libraries. 

Lawmakers argued with librarians and members of the public over whether libraries are hosting obscene books and other media. The new bill is mostly the same as House Bill 384, which the State Affairs Committee endorsed in January, before it stalled in the House. The committee voted along party lines to advance the new version. 

Like HB 384, the new bill would make libraries liable for uncapped civil damages if they don’t relocate a challenged book. The bill also directs libraries to mention the statutory definition of “harmful to minors” in book review forms that must be “readily accessible” to patrons. 

The legislation relies on existing state code that defines what’s “harmful to minors.” It includes “patently offensive” depictions of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement and sado-masochistic abuse. 

The new bill would strike one part of the existing statute, a provision that says material that “has the dominant effect of substantially arousing sexual desires” is harmful to minors. Removing the provision would more closely align state law with the Miller test, the U.S. Supreme Court’s measurement for obscene material, said sponsoring Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa. 

“That actually took us above and beyond the Miller test, which would take us into unconstitutional waters,” Crane said. “We want to make sure that when this gets challenged at the Supreme Court level, if that were to ever happen, we would be able to hold firm.”

Everyone who testified Monday opposed the new bill. Some faced unyielding questions from committee Republicans. In one particularly testy exchange, Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, repeatedly asked Jenny Emery Davidson, executive director of The Community Library in Ketchum, whether minors should be prevented from accessing harmful material, as defined by Idaho law. 

“This legislation deals with a legal definition of obscenity and ‘harmful to minors,’” Young said. “Is it a problem for government to prevent minors from accessing this type of material?”

Emery Davidson asked Young to call out specific books in libraries that would meet the legal definition. She also noted that “Why Everyone Needs an AR-15: A Guide for Kids,” a children’s book written by Sen. Brian Lenney, R-Nampa, is in an Idaho library’s collection. 

“I might find that book offensive,” Emery Davidson said. “However, I believe that everybody can choose for themselves what they think is appropriate for themselves and their family.”

Another testifier broke into song: “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people who love in a different way or some folks who come here from some other place,” crooned Eric Gironda. 

Opponents of bills that rely on Idaho’s existing definition of “harmful to minors” have noted that it includes any depiction of homosexuality under “sexual conduct.” Young said the bill doesn’t “target any particular type of sexual activity,” but rather “graphic depictions of sexual activity which are patently offensive to the prevailing standard of what’s appropriate for children.” 

Young asked whether Gironda thinks “it’s appropriate to expose children to this type of material?” Gironda responded, “Actually, I think it’s really inappropriate for representatives of the great state of Idaho to ask continual gotcha questions at people who are up here testifying.”

Monday marked the third public hearing on a library bill this legislative session. Last month, the Senate narrowly rejected Senate Bill 1289, which also would have made libraries liable for civil action stemming from book relocation requests. 

But the new bill prompted some unexplored questions. It would make private school libraries liable for lawsuits along with public libraries and public school libraries. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, asked Crane whether the state has the authority to regulate “what should be and shouldn’t be in their private libraries.” 

Crane said he spoke with a private school superintendent who had “no issue with what we’re doing here.” There’s no First Amendment right to furnish minors with harmful material, Crane said. 

Abigail Wallace, a 16-year-old student at Bishop Kelly High School, a private Catholic school in Boise, said the thought of books being removed from the library is “devastating.” “Books have always had a positive impact on my life. They have always added perspective and given me compassion for others.”

The bill now heads to the House floor, where it could come up for a vote in the coming days.

Senate tightens Launch ‘in-demand’ career language

The Senate voted to tighten up the rules for Idaho Launch — by changing the way the state defines an “in-demand career.”

The definition matters because it sits at the heart of Launch, an incentive program that provides up to $8,000 to high school graduates who want to continue their education.

Passed in 2023, Launch deployed a simple definition of an “in-demand career,” based on job openings and industry growth. The new definition would go into effect in future years, and it factors in metrics such as earning potential, the transferability of job skills and the length of a training program.

The new definition is designed to tighten the fledgling program, said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dave Lent, R-Idaho Falls, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1390, the Launch definitions bill. But SB 1390 is also an attempt to shore up support for Launch, a polarizing program that barely passed the Legislature a year ago.

SB 1390 passed the Senate, over the objections of hardline Republicans. But the 25-10 roll call represents a wider margin than last year’s Launch votes. This bill now goes to the House.

In the days to come, lawmakers are likely to take up the budget bill for Launch. Gov. Brad Little has proposed $70.8 million for Launch funding — enough to provide grants for nearly 9,000 of this year’s graduating high school seniors.

Committee tables school internet access bill

A House-passed school internet bill timed out Monday.

The Senate Education Committee tabled House Bill 663, a bipartisan bill that would have limited access to social media platforms in schools. The bill would have required school districts to adopt internet use policies, and add digital literacy instruction in sixth through 12th grade.

Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, led the opposition to the bill, on two technical points, He said the bill created a loophole that would have allowed students to access social media sites for instructional purposes, while failing to define digital literacy.

The committee then went through a process of elimination.

Senators rejected a motion to send the bill to the Senate floor for amendment. Herndon balked at addressing his concerns with amendment, saying the bill needed more work in committee.

Senators then rejected a motion to send the bill to the floor for a vote.

The third vote, tabling the bill, passed on a 6-3 vote, and effectively killed the bill for the session.

Charter facilities funding bills head to Senate

The Senate Education Committee passed a pair of lookalike bills designed to shore up charter school funding.

Senate Bills 1391 and 1392 would accomplish the same purpose: It would add a second option to Idaho’s complicated formula that funds charter facilities.

If one of the bills passes, charters could receive facilities money based on a formula tied to voter-approved public school bonds and levies, or $400 per student, whichever is higher.

There is only one difference between the bills: One refers to House Bill 521, the complicated school facilities and income-tax relief bill awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

The Senate won’t take up either of the charter bills until the Senate votes on HB 521, said Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, the sponsor of the charter bills.

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Ryan Suppe and Kevin Richert

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business. Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism.

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