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Librarians could be criminally charged over ‘obscene’ books in West Virginia bill

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(NEW YORK) — The West Virginia legislature is considering a bill that would remove protections for librarians in case minors come across books that contain what the state considers “obscene” material at their facilities.


The bill passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 16 and has now been introduced in the Senate.

The bill would remove any exemptions from criminal liability for public libraries or museums that display or distribute “obscene matter to a minor.”

A librarian or museum who violates these restrictions could be charged with a felony, fined up to $25,000, and sentenced to up to five years in a correctional facility if found guilty.

Critics say the bill would lead to an increase in book challenges and potentially lead to criminal charges against librarians for books that are not pornographic, but books that include sexual content — including classical literature.

Obscene matter, as defined in three parts in the state code, applies to matter that: “an average person, applying contemporary adult community standards, would find, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, is intended to appeal to the prurient interest, or is pandered to a prurient interest.”

The definition goes on, adding that: “an average person, applying community standards, would find [that the material] depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexually explicit conduct; and a reasonable person would find, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

The American Library Association (ALA) has found that obscenity allegations have largely been used to challenge books that touch on the LGBTQ+ community, sex education, race and politics.

The bill has prompted debate over concerns about censorship and what students can or cannot have access to.

“It is going to cost our counties and our librarians when these matters go to the court system,” said Democratic House Minority Leader Sean Hornbuckle in a Friday hearing on the bill, according to local news outlet The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. “This is a very dangerous bill.”

Supporters of the bill say that it does not ban books or censor speech because the books can still be bought privately. They say it protects children.

“What this bill does do is stop obscene and pornographic material, sexually explicit materials from being available to children in public taxpayer-funded spaces,” said Republican Del. Elliott Pritt in the Friday hearing, according to The Parkersburg News and Sentinel.

Schools and libraries nationwide have seen a massive increase in book-banning efforts and complaints relating to topics like racism, race, sexual orientation, gender and more, according to the ALA.

Preliminary ALA data found that in the first eight months of 2023, attempts to censor library materials increased 20% from the same reporting period in 2022, which saw the highest number of book challenges since the organization began compiling the data over 20 years ago.

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