Our view: Obscenity bills create problems where none exist

Let’s focus on the common-sense and very real logistical concerns that exist as lawmakers seek to remove perceived obscenity from our public reading places.

Herald pull quote, 4/5/2023
Herald graphic

Today, as we debate perceived obscene materials in North Dakota libraries, let’s leave out the obvious arguments about the First Amendment and the historic impropriety of book bans.

Instead, let’s focus on the common-sense and very real logistical concerns that exist as lawmakers seek to remove perceived obscenity from our public reading places.

At issue are two bills in the North Dakota Legislature. House Bill 1205 seeks to remove or relocate “explicit sexual material” from children’s collections in public libraries. Senate Bill 2360 seeks 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.”

HB 1205’s main sponsor, Rep. Mike Lefor, R-Dickinson, told the Dickinson Press earlier this year that he is concerned with the wellbeing of adolescents in North Dakota. Late last year in Dickinson, controversy arose over a book at that city’s public library titled “Let’s Talk About It: A Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human.”

“Adolescents at age 13 don't have the maturity to be able to consent to this type of activity. And the book is about 220-some pages of disgusting, repulsive material,” Lefor told the Press.


And now, as the two bills are on the cusp of reality in North Dakota, librarians are understandably fidgety over what it really will mean for their facilities. In particular, they say, is the likelihood that they will have to browse thousands of pieces of content to ensure that any perceived obscenity cannot be accessed by children.

We intentionally say “perceived” obscenity.


Because the wording of SB 2360 leaves open the possibility of serious subjective thinking when determining what, exactly, is obscene. For instance: “Obscene material” refers to material that “taken as a whole, the average person, applying contemporary North Dakota standards, would find predominantly appeals to a prurient interest; depicts or describes in a patently offensive manner sexual conduct, whether normal or perverted; and taken as a whole, the reasonable person would find lacking in serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Legally speaking, what are “contemporary North Dakota standards” and “reasonable people”?

That’s probably what librarians will be wondering as they pore through thousands of books if these bills become law.

A recent Grand Forks Herald report outlined the concern of library leaders from Grand Forks, Grafton and Devils Lake. All three said they have more than 30,000 pieces of content in their respective libraries, and they don’t have nearly enough staff to take on this unnecessary task.

It’ll be a costly, confusing and maddening effort.


The State Library has estimated it will need $3.6 million over the next two years for more than 100 temporary staff members to go through the library’s collection – not counting the costs for the more than 80 public libraries throughout the state.

It’s unnecessary, since libraries already have processes in place to vet potentially offensive material. Interestingly, nobody has filled out the requisite forms in at least five years in Grand Forks, Grafton and Devils Lake. Perhaps that hints that we’re creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

And as lawmakers fret about the impact that potentially obscene reading material presents to adolescents, they’re forgetting one great truth about today’s teenagers: Many teens – probably a majority of teens – have access to serious pornography on cellphones and other electronic devices. They also are barraged with questionable material on social media and in everyday advertisements.

We don’t have a problem with questioning suspect material in libraries in an effort to shield young eyes. But let’s do it by following the processes that already are in place.

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