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Local leaders discuss library bill

by EVIE SEABERG
Staff Writer | January 19, 2024 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — What constitutes inappropriate children’s library materials is again taking center stage as Idaho legislators resurrected legislation dealing with the subject.

Supporters say House Bill 384, which was introduced Jan. 10, will protect children from obscene materials, while critics say the bill both threatens Idaho public libraries with unnecessary financial penalties and could encourage censorship. Others say the legislation needs more time to be refined. 

While the bill was up for a third reading Thursday, it was returned to the State Affairs Committee with unanimous consent instead.

The Children's School and Library Protection Act requires public schools and community libraries to take "reasonable steps" in restricting children's access to obscene or harmful material. Parents and guardians of minors who access such material would be entitled to sue those entities, school or library, for damages. If successful in their challenge, libraries could be fined $250 per violation.

HB 384 is nearly identical to HB 314 but decreases the fine to $250 and gives schools and libraries 30 days, upon receipt of a written complaint, to relocate the disputed item or risk being sued and potentially fined. Individuals who prevail in their complaint may recover $250 in statutory and actual damages.

“This bill does not ‘ban’ any books, but instead provides clarification for schools and libraries about how they should handle material harmful to minors in Idaho,” said Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay.

Others, however, disagree, saying they believe the goal of legislation is censorship.

“I believe the goal is censorship, in the sense of some people wanting to impose their own political, moral, or religious beliefs onto others,” Vanessa Velez interim director of the East Bonner County Library District, said. “Beyond censorship, I'm afraid that another goal might be to erode trust in public institutions.”

Velez said the bill would negatively impact libraries by creating a need for renovations and extra staff to check identification and monitor certain areas, placing unnecessary financial burden on existing libraries.

She also said the bill will encourage “individuals to bring civil lawsuits against library staff and board members.” Because of this, she expects finding employees willing to work in such an environment to be near impossible.

In addition, Velez said she is concerned that isolating certain materials based on subjective standards could create an uncomfortable environment for adults looking to use the library. 

“As an adult, consider how you would feel if you were required to show picture ID to library staff before being allowed to access something that was placed behind locked doors because someone else subjectively decided that what you wanted to access was ‘obscene’ and ‘harmful to minors,’” she said.

In addition, she said implementation of the bill could mean minors can no longer move freely about the library without supervision.

“Our library already has clear processes in place allowing community members to request the reconsideration of library materials,” she said. “If this process is circumvented so that anyone can demand the removal of library items they personally disagree with, where does that end? The erosion of civil rights may begin with a single step, until it becomes a landslide.”

The library’s collection development policy is available on the EBCLD website and outlines the reconsideration process. It begins with a statement that reading is a private activity.

“Individuals must examine materials as to suitability for their own purposes and make their own decisions to read or not to read particular items,” the policy states. “As part of its mission to provide ready access to the wide diversity of ideas and information, the library strives to collect materials that provide a variety of viewpoints on issues and subjects. It recognizes that some of these may be controversial and that any given item has the potential to offend some members of the community. Selection of materials is not made on the basis of anticipated approval or disapproval, but on the basis of the principles and guidelines stated in the collection development policy. Likewise, the library will not eliminate items purchased under due consideration solely because they might displease a particular individual or group.”

Instead, the policy states that responsibility for the selection of children’s library materials rests with the parents or legal guardians.

“Selection of library materials will not be inhibited by the possibility that materials may come into the possession of children, and only parents may restrict access for their own children,” the document says. 

However, patrons may raise objections to items  in the library's collection. If a complaint cannot be resolved informally through consulting with library staff, patrons who seek review or removal of a particular item in the library collection may request reconsideration of that material.

The request is then reviewed by the library director or designated staff, who compare the material with the library’s mission statement and collection policy. They have 30 days to evaluate and respond to the request. 

“If the community member who submitted the original request for reconsideration does not agree with the director’s determination, they may appeal the decision to the library board of trustees,” the policy reads. “The board will determine whether the staff’s decision should be upheld, modified or overturned at their next scheduled regular meeting and deliver their decision in writing within 30 days. The decision of the board is final.”

The bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, contends the legislation is not new and only places new consequences on public entities.

“The books that the legislation addresses are already defined in Idaho Code, and it is already a crime for any person to provide such materials to minors,” he said. “The current criminal law has exceptions for libraries and schools, and House Bill 384 simply affirms that these are materials that are not appropriate for minors.”

Herndon said the bill has become necessary now that new materials and books are circulating in Idaho’s libraries that didn’t exist decades ago.

“These books are specifically designed to target children in order to stimulate unusual and excessive interest in sexual matters,” he said. “These books are not usual and ordinary according to societal norms that have existed for generations in Idaho.”

Jim Woodward, who held the seat Herndon now holds and is running for the seat again in 2024, said most don’t want age-inappropriate material in the libraries. However, he said this legislation could be massaged out a bit more to find the best solution for communities and their libraries. He also said that library boards are elected for a reason — to offer local voices a say in what happens in their communities. 

“We’ve created those positions, as an elected official, to have responsibility for a library,” he said. “The closer to home a decision is made, the better the decision. That’s local control versus the idea of a state-wide answer. One size fits all never fits well. We don’t have to have somebody at the state level telling us how to do things at the local level.”

With certain definitions being somewhat vague, including what it means to “relocate” a book, Woodward said this bill could just cost extra taxpayer money with little success. 

“The result might just be a lot of time in court trying to decide what this bill really means, so it’s costly for the taxpayer to do this wrong,” he said.

With similar legislation being presented right now, Woodward said there are other opportunities to address concerns from the public that won’t include a private right to action like HB 384 does.   

“When you put something into law, it’s mandatory, so you ought to get it right the first time,” he said. “If the porridge is too hot or the porridge is too cold, you better make sure you wait until the porridge is just right, then we’ll vote yes and do it once and not multiple times with court cases in between.”

Initial attempts to pass this type of legislation first began in 2023 with HB 314.

After passing both the House and Senate, HB 314 was vetoed last spring by Gov. Brad Little, while supportive of the bill's intent, said the terminology was too ambiguous. The bill was also criticized for its potential financial impact on libraries because each claimed violation could incur a $2,500 fine. 

“Allowing any parent, regardless of intention, to collect $2,500 in automatic fines creates a library bounty system that will only increase the costs local libraries incur, particularly rural libraries,” Little said. “These costs will be forced onto property taxpayers of Idaho or force the libraries to close to minors altogether.”