Libraries now face a complex question: What’s ‘harmful’ to minors?

Idaho school and library officials over the next couple months will grapple with a complex question: What content does their community consider “harmful” to children?

The recently enacted House Bill 710 — which seeks to restrict library material accessible to children — relies on an existing state law that defines obscene books, magazines, movies and other content as “harmful.” While the law historically has deterred shopkeepers from selling copies of “Playboy” to curious teenagers, it now applies to librarians, as well. 

It’s unclear how the existing definition — circa 1972 — will be applied to public libraries in demographically and ideologically diverse communities. Depictions of intercourse and masturbation are straightforward enough, but “sexual conduct” includes acts of homosexuality. Such depictions are “harmful” if they appeal to the prurient interest applying “contemporary community standards,” per HB 710. 

Robert Wright, director, Idaho Falls Public Library. (Photo: LinkedIn)

“Idaho Falls is so diverse,” said library director Robert Wright. “We have same-gender families, so we have books that talk about same-gender families. The picture book that shows little Timmy going to school with two dads or two moms, what are the community standards?”

A strict reading of the new law says the depiction of Timmy’s parents is inappropriate for children, Wright said. While he likes to believe that Idaho Falls residents would be OK with this kind of content, it will probably take a lawsuit to sort that out. “Until it’s litigated — and it’ll probably be litigated at some point — we don’t really know where we’re at.”

In the meantime, library officials are meeting with the city’s attorney to craft a policy that complies with the law, which goes into effect July 1. 

The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa, Sen. Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins, and Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise. Republican Gov. Brad Little signed the bill into law last week. 

Here’s what it does: 

  • It bars libraries — including public and private school libraries — from making “harmful” material accessible to minors.
  • It requires libraries to develop a policy and create a form allowing anyone to challenge a book they deem “harmful.”
  • It gives anyone the right to sue a library if officials decline or neglect to restrict a challenged book to an adults-only section within 60 days of a complaint.
  • It makes libraries liable for a $250 statutory fine — along with potential civil damages — if a book isn’t restricted and a court deems it “harmful.”

Impending book challenges are likely to focus on LGBTQ+ themes and characters, as they have through schools’ and libraries’ existing relocation processes. Just this month, the Lakeland school board had a heated debate over the district’s handling of a book that has a same-gender couple, according to reporting by the Bonner County Daily Bee

Other potential obstacles surround the new law. For instance, the law doesn’t restrict the number of times a single book can be challenged, nor does it limit the right to challenge a book to school or library district patrons — anyone, from anywhere, can file a complaint. “We’re facing a scenario where we see challenge after challenge after challenge,” Wright said.

Additionally, it’s uncertain how libraries will implement the requirement that “harmful” books be placed in an adults-only section. For some libraries, that will call for creating an adults-only section that doesn’t exist — and policing it to ensure that minors can’t get in. 

“The city of Boise, one of the largest library systems in the state, does not have an adults-only section,” Kathy Griesmyer, government affairs director for the city, told lawmakers last month. “It’s something that’s not really feasible from a facility or structure standpoint.”

And what about school libraries, which typically don’t serve adults? They may have to start collecting books behind a librarian’s desk or create an area that requires parental permission, said Quinn Perry, deputy director for the Idaho School Boards Association. 

Quinn Perry, deputy director, Idaho School Boards Association

School and library advocates urged lawmakers to change the bill language from “adults-only” to “age-appropriate,” to give libraries more flexibility when relocating a book, but that didn’t make it in the final version of the legislation.

Perry noted that some school libraries are the only libraries in their community, and many schools don’t have a full-time librarian on staff. School districts will have to reevaluate the books in their collections to comply with the law. 

It’s too soon to say what the effect will have, as we reject any notion that school districts have pornography in their libraries,” Perry said. 

Simply restricting access to, or altogether removing, controversial books isn’t so simple. Government institutions face legal risk from the other direction on First Amendment grounds. 

Whether a public or school library can block someone from accessing a book is an unsettled area of law. In the 1970s, a group of New York teenagers sued their school board, alleging their First Amendment rights were violated when a school library removed nearly a dozen books — including Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.” The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and justices were divided over whether the school board had the authority to remove the books. 

Probing this legal precariousness likely will come at a cost for Idaho libraries and schools — even before the first book challenge lawsuit heads to court. Wright joked that the Idaho Falls city attorney is now on speed dial. 

“We’re just going to be waiting to see what transpires,” he said. “I’m sure there will be people lined up on July 1 that have books they don’t want in the library.”

Ryan Suppe

Ryan Suppe

Senior reporter Ryan Suppe covers education policy, focusing on K-12 schools. He previously reported on state politics, local government and business for newspapers in the Treasure Valley and Eastern Idaho. A Nevada native, Ryan enjoys golf, skiing and movies. Follow him on Twitter: @ryansuppe. Contact him at [email protected]

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