Grand Forks library officials expresses concern with legislation seeking to ban 'obscene materials'
Senate Bill 2360, which passed 38-9 and is now awaiting action in House, would make it a Class B misdemeanor to "willfully display obscene materials" in locations accessible to minors
GRAND FORKS — Staff at the Grand Forks Public Library are concerned about the ramifications a Senate bill seeking to prohibit “obscene materials” from establishments accessible to minors could have if it becomes law.
Senate Bill 2360 — which passed on Feb. 16 by a count of 38-9 and is now awaiting action in the House — seeks to amend the North Dakota Century Code to prohibit “the willful display of obscene materials at newsstands or any other business establishment frequented by minors, or where minors are or may be invited as part of the general public.”
If it becomes law, the bill would make violators guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.
Wendy Wendt, director of the Grand Forks Public Library, said the bill’s language is vague regarding its definition of locations accessible to minors.
“I have lots of issues with the way the bill is worded,” said Wendt. “Most significantly, it prohibits obscene materials from being housed in a place minors can access. There are tons of places in our library children frequent, such as the play structure and fish tank.”
Wendt said moving materials intended for adults into a section closed to minors would not be feasible, due to on ongoing renovations.
Wendt says the bill’s definition of obscene materials is similarly vague, banning “depictions or written descriptions of nude, partially denuded human figures posed or presented in a manner to exploit sex, lust or perversion.” Due to the bill's ambiguity, she says library staff would have to examine every item in its catalog for compliance.
“Complying with the requirements of this bill, were it to become law, would be so onerous we would have to shut down,” Wendt said. “We would have to physically go through hundreds of books in our catalog and read every page to avoid potentially going to jail.”
Wendt also said the bill would make it difficult for parents like herself to allow their children to select reading materials they believe are age appropriate.
“This bill is an affront to our First Amendment rights,” said Wendt. “As a parent of a grown child, this law would preclude me from deciding what reading materials my son can access. Each child is unique in their maturity and reading ability.”
Wendt says library staff have testified in opposition to the bill, and written letters to legislators opposing it.
Tanya Palmer, information services supervisor at the library, said the bill’s definition of obscenity could target historic works of literature.
“This bill even targets Shakespeare plays, due to their references of cross dressing,” said Palmer. “Women weren’t allowed to act in plays in the Shakespeare era, so men would typically dress as women and play their roles.”
Palmer also expressed concern with the bill’s potential to negatively impact those with reduced means who may not be able to afford buying books in an effort to circumvent bans.
“It will increase the divide between the ability of the haves and have-nots to freely access information,” said Palmer.