West Virginia Lawmakers Propose Controversial Bill to Criminalize Libraries for Obscene Material

Charleston, West Virginia – Lawmakers in West Virginia are mulling over a controversial proposal that would subject public and school libraries to felony charges for displaying or distributing materials deemed obscene. However, librarians are pushing back, questioning the feasibility of implementing such a policy and the potential consequences for their profession and the community. The state’s existing obscenity laws already carry significant penalties, including fines up to $25,000 and imprisonment for up to five years.

On Wednesday, the House of Delegates chamber will host a public hearing on House Bill 4654, which aims to eliminate the exemptions currently granted to public and school libraries under the state’s obscenity laws. The House Judiciary Committee has postponed its consideration of the bill until after the hearing.

Megan Tarbett, the director of the Putnam County Library and president of the West Virginia Library Association, expressed her concerns, stating, “We would like it not to leave the committee. It would be a huge burden to our staff and our community in many ways.” Tarbett emphasized the challenges of enforcing such a policy and worried that it could lead to self-censorship, limiting the selection of books available to the public.

Similar laws have been passed in several states in recent years, including Arkansas. It is often books like “This Book is Gay” and “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” that come under scrutiny, rather than explicit pornography. The American Library Association reported that “Gender Queer,” an illustrated memoir exploring gender identity and sexuality, topped the list of most challenged books in both 2021 and 2022.

Delegate Brandon Steele, a Republican from Raleigh and the main sponsor of the bill, highlighted conversations he had with librarians in his community as the impetus for the legislation. Steele argued that the current exemptions are outdated and need to be revised to prevent material he considers provocative or erotic from being shown to minors. He cited a quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who in 1964 famously said, “I know it when I see it,” referring to his test for obscenity.

Democrats in the House of Delegates have characterized the proposal as a potential “book ban bill” that could criminalize librarians, teachers, and museum curators for providing access to certain books or artwork. They argue that this could have a chilling effect on works like the Bible, biographies of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Roberto Clemente, and images of Michelangelo’s statue of David. House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty from Ohio expressed concern that such laws have led to the banning of the Bible in certain states.

The bill’s supporters contend that it is essential to protect children from exposure to explicit materials and argue that any ambiguities in the legislation can be clarified by the judicial branch. However, opponents fear that the proposed law would have far-reaching implications and infringe upon freedom of expression. The clash between these opposing viewpoints sets the stage for further debate and discussion during the ongoing legislative process.