New wave of bills targeting libraries is ‘a threat to our democracy,’ American Library Association warns

Less than two months into 2024, lawmakers in at least 13 states have introduced legislation that could disrupt libraries’ services and censor their materials. The new wave of bills follows a historic year of book challenges, mainly affecting titles centered on the topics of race, gender identity or sexual orientation.

“The American Library Association condemns in the strongest terms possible legislation in more than a dozen states that would threaten librarians and other educators with criminal prosecution for doing their jobs,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in a statement. “This is not a culture war; it’s a threat to our democracy.”

Caldwell-Stone added, “Nowhere have we witnessed attacks on education like those currently proposed in Wisconsin.”

The Wisconsin Legislature is considering a bill to take away protections from library employees being prosecuted on charges of possessing “obscene” materials by removing public, private and tribal schools from the list of institutions exempt from prosecution for obscene materials violations.

“Those who would prosecute librarians and teachers would divert precious education resources to defending frivolous lawsuits and policing our nation’s most trusted institutions and community anchors: libraries and schools,” Caldwell-Stone said.

In Idaho, a bill proposes to prohibit librarians from making materials that include sexual conduct available to minors. Homosexuality is included in that category alongside sexual intercourse and masturbation.

Caldwell-Stone said the American Library Association is familiar with “attempts to rewrite obscenity statutes” to encompass specific books and topics, and she said she considers it a form of discrimination.

Obscenity laws in the majority of the states provide exemptions and are designed to prevent legal action against school, museum and library employees, who typically provide access to a breadth of materials.

Revoking those exemptions would mean schools and libraries would have to spend more time and resources on defense against scrutiny, Caldwell-Stone said.

She added that making cases for published resources to be considered obscene must be conducted by judges and juries with evidence brought forward by prosecutors.

“We’re seeing attempts by advocacy groups to file criminal charges against librarians and educators for books that they would like to see out of the library, and over and over again, these prosecutors decline to prosecute because there is absolutely no evidence that the books meet the most minimal standards for obscenity under the Miller Test,” she said.

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