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Idaho House has competing bills on ‘harmful’ material in libraries. What lawmakers decided

A librarian returns books to the shelves at a Boise Public Library branch on Tuesday. Idaho lawmakers on Wednesday considered competing bills meant to address children’s access to “harmful” material in libraries.  (Sarah A. Miller)
By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

An Idaho legislative committee on Wednesday rejected a bill that would have made schools and libraries liable to lawsuits for distributing material deemed “harmful” to children.

The committee also delayed action on another bill, supported by a librarian trade group, that would direct library oversight boards to create policies clearly labeling shelves and material suitable for children.

Lawmakers rejected House Bill 139 — sponsored by Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa, and the Idaho Family Policy Center, a religious lobbying group — which would have allowed parents to sue schools and libraries if employees gave their child “harmful” material or if the institution failed to take “reasonable steps to restrict access” to “harmful” material for minors.

“It’s fair for taxpaying parents to know that if they send their kids to a public library, community library, and there’s harmful material in there that they shouldn’t have to worry that those kids just easily access that material,” Crane told the House Education Committee.

The bill mirrors a current Idaho law that prohibits giving children under 18 “harmful” material that features “nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sado-masochistic abuse” when it’s lewd or “patently offensive to prevailing standards” among adults.

“Sexual conduct” under the law includes depictions of masturbation, homosexuality, sexual intercourse and physical contact with genitals and female breasts.

The bill offers exceptions for material that contains literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors, “according to prevailing standards in the adult community.” A guardian of a child who was able to obtain “harmful” material from a library or school could claim $10,000 in statutory damages for each instance the material was obtained.

Committee members, including six Republicans, cited concerns over the severity of the damages, vagueness regarding how exceptions would be interpreted, and apprehension with usurping locally elected library boards’ control over their material.

“Who decides whether it’s literary value or not?” said Rep. Greg Lanting, R-Twin Falls. “Who decides for sure what’s obscene material? Do we have to take everything to a judge to get a final decision?”

Public testimony was divided over the bill. Several parents who supported the measure said they were frustrated by their local library board’s refusal to remove books that parents considered obscene.

Gregory Taylor, a teacher librarian at Boise’s Hillsdale Junior High School, said a librarian’s job is helping people find books relevant to their everyday lives.

“No one standard could ever match all needs and tastes,” Taylor told the committee. “Responsible parents know what their children are reading, and they take the time to make those thoughtful decisions about which books their kids read. Let other families make their own choices.”

Lawmakers stall on competing libraries bill

The committee also held a public hearing on House Bill 227, which would direct public school and library leaders to establish standards restricting minors’ access to “harmful” material.

Under the bill, sponsored by Rep. Jack Nelsen, R-Jerome, schools and libraries would be required to have a process through which parents can challenge library books they find objectionable during a public meeting.

It would also require that parents who consent to their children obtaining a library card acknowledge that it’s their responsibility to oversee materials their child accesses at the library.

“I think of it as parental responsibility, which in my book is right where it should be,” Nelsen said.

Last year, the Idaho House passed a bill that would have made librarians liable for criminal penalties for distributing “harmful” material to minors. Senate Republicans didn’t hold a hearing on the bill, effectively killing it.

After last year’s bill failed, the House passed a resolution declaring that lawmakers would meet with representatives of the Idaho Commission for Libraries and the Idaho Library Association to craft a proposal that protects minors from “harmful” material.

Lance McGrath, president of the Idaho Library Association, a trade group representing library service workers, said Wednesday that the association assembled a working group but never heard from lawmakers, and that Crane declined to collaborate on House Bill 139.

McGrath said the association supports Nelsen’s bill because it suggests “reasonable steps” to restrict children’s access to certain material while maintaining access for adults.

“This bill ensures that all Idaho citizens have a clear process for engaging with their libraries and expressing their opinions without dictating what others are able to access at their library,” he said.

The House Education Committee adjourned before taking action on the bill. At the time, there were separate motions to advance the bill and reject it. Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, proposed rejecting it.

The provision requiring parents acknowledge their responsibility for material their children access “favors” librarians, Ehardt said.

“I just don’t like the fact that it provides protections to librarians,” she said.

The lack of action on House Bill 227 means it could later return to the committee for another hearing.