Idaho libraries are currently fighting three bills recently presented in the House and Senate. We are fighting not because we don’t believe in protecting children from age inappropriate materials but because the bills are unnecessary and the consequences of any becoming law would radically and negatively change how public libraries operate.
Perhaps there is a lack of understanding of the role of local library boards and policy. Idaho library trustees take an oath to uphold the U.S. and Idaho constitutions and laws; libraries follow existing laws. Obscenity laws are necessary and important. State laws like Idaho’s rely on a long-standing Supreme Court decision called the Miller Test to determine if an item is actually obscene or whether some portion within it just makes some people uncomfortable. The Miller Test has been used successfully since the 1970s to make sure any limits on a particular item don’t limit overall rights. Board approved policies are followed to select quality, legitimate materials.
Librarians and trustees believe in the concept of age appropriateness. However, the reason public libraries exist is to serve the entire community. To accomplish both aims, libraries are organized by reading level intention. Bill sponsors say they don’t want to punish librarians but simply want reasonable steps to be taken to protect children. Libraries already take reasonable steps. HB227, with input from librarians, was recently presented in the House and would have codified these steps into law. While heard in committee, no action was taken and 227 sponsors were told codifying best practices was unacceptable because that “did not have teeth.” It is clear that punishment is what is desired. Punishing good, dedicated, professionals serving their communities seems to be the modus operandi for today’s legislature. This is what is truly unacceptable.
The bills now under consideration are so vaguely worded that it is possible any material that makes some parent/guardian uncomfortable for any reason could be a candidate for cause of action. Libraries are confident of prevailing in court as no library materials meet the definition of obscene in the three-prong Miller Test for obscenity and, taken as a whole (as current law requires), no materials meet the “harmful to minors” definition. Yet, hearings and social media commentary prove clearly that there are many citizens who simply do not believe this. Thus, libraries could constantly face causes of action, taking time, energy, and taxpayer funds away from other vital library services. Should they become law, any of these bills would undermine library operations and would result in significant modification of practices (chilling effect) because the potential threat of innumerable causes of action would hang above like a Damocles sword.
HO314, for example, dictates that libraries “shall not promote, give, or make available to a minor…” a laundry list of items (in various formats) relating to nudity or sexual conduct. This does not simply refer to checking out; minors would not even be allowed to come across them in the library. It would be nearly impossible to implement restrictions that completely preclude someone from subjectively identifying any item in any area of the library and deeming it “harmful.” This is why libraries promote parental responsibility as best practice.
As we are seeing play out in health care, bills seeking to punish professionals or their institutions lack foresight and a big picture view. They will result in changes to library practices and services that will negatively affect Idahoans. Mark Twain once said, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” The Idaho legislature should keep this in mind as they consider the three bills before them.