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Two more library bills head to Idaho Senate in waning days of session

The Senate State Affairs Committee sent bills aimed at restricting access to harmful materials to minors in schools and libraries to the Senate floor on Friday.

BOISE, Idaho — This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press.

The Senate State Affairs Committee sent bills aimed at restricting access to harmful materials to minors in schools and libraries, while adding criminal penalties and expanding judicial jurisdiction in the matter, to the Senate floor for possible amendments on Friday morning.

Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder, R-Boise, sponsored both bills, which add public libraries, museums, and other public entities to existing laws that ban disseminating material harmful to minors. The bills will likely be amended to remove colleges and universities. The Legislature is in the final days of the session, and the bills will need to be taken up, amended and passed in both chambers before lawmakers leave town, otherwise the issue will wait until next year.

SB 1187 would add public institutions to current laws that ban distributing materials that are considered harmful, which is defined as any depiction “of a person or portion of the human body that depicts nudity, sexual conduct, or sado-masochistic abuse that is harmful to minors” or “any other material harmful to minors.”

The penalty would be up to one year in jail or up to $1,000 fine.

The bill also adds requirements for board policies, including creating an advisory board to develop, implement and enforce these policies.

This definition of “harmful to minors” already exists in Idaho code, but those opposed worried the language was too vague. Librarians from the Idaho Library Association testified against the bill with concerns it may threaten First Amendment rights and that public libraries already have policies in place for addressing concerns about materials.

Winder said there seemed to be an issue with how effective those policies are.

“I don’t think we’d be here if there was communication was going on,” Winder said, “if the communities didn’t feel some concern about the materials.”

Other concerns centered on the requirements in the bill for a citizen review committee. It requires no fewer than five people and must include parents of minors who attend the institution, residents of the community served by the institution, someone from a local law enforcement agency’s sex crimes unit, and one representative from “the religious community” being served by the institution.

Senate Minority Leader Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, questioned the necessity of law enforcement and was concerned having just one person representing one religion would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prevents government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”

Wintrow also saw the legislation, and others like it that have been proposed as “walking toward censorship.”

She said librarians and institutions might end up being so concerned about legal challenges that it would have a chilling effect on what’s included in libraries. Wintrow said that in looking at lists of challenged books in her library, the common thread on the list was that many of them featured gay or Black characters.

She said much of the discussion on library materials has been “shrouded in discussion about obscenity” but that it may have the effect of removing stories outside “mainstream culture.”

SB 1188 would give district courts jurisdiction to issue an injunction over schools, museums, public libraries or any other public entity to prevent the distribution of material harmful to minors. It would give county prosecuting attorneys the authority to file for an injunction to prevent the dissemination of these materials, and those entities would be entitled to a trial within one day, with a decision rendered within two days of the conclusion of the trial.

Sen. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, said that as an attorney he’s been involved in injunction hearings and they bring “everything to a halt in the court system,” because of the expedited timeline. He argued that bringing the courts into this issue would “waste more time” and wasn’t necessary because local library and school districts already have policies and procedures in place for addressing concerns.

If the court rules against that entity, the order or judgment must direct them to cease distributing or promoting those materials and it may order the seizure and destruction of material if it was found to be distributing that material to those under 18. 

One testifier, Pamela Murray, noted that she was worried the sex education provided by her Unitarian Universalist Fellowship would fall under the legislation because she has received a tax rebate, and the bill lists any entity that within the last five years received public funds or a tax rebate.

“1188 is concerning to me as a person who has received tax rebates and also becomes then under the jurisdiction of this and would definitely go to court to defend my congregation’s ability to educate our children as we see fit,” Murray said.

Lynn Laird, a psychologist, testified in favor of both bills. She said they simply provide equal access for recourse if something were to happen, since these laws already apply to private businesses.

Lance McGrath, president of the Idaho Library Association, said the bill was “a prime example of draconian government overreach.”

“It is a sledgehammer being wielded by a gardener in an attempt to smash a mosquito, only there is no mosquito and the gardener only ends up smashing their prized greenhouse to bits in the process,” McGrath said.

Erin Kennedy, also of the Idaho Library Association, said that nothing has changed with how librarians do their job, but that only in the last few years have they faced “ire” and “harassment” for what’s on their shelves.

“What has changed? Not the way that we operate,” Kennedy said.

Ruchti said the issue wasn’t the children, but the adults. He argued that a “loud, angry group of citizens,” through the existing process, didn’t get the results they wanted.

“We have people who just won’t take no for an answer,” Ruchti said.

Winder argued that things have changed, and that’s why he felt the legislation was necessary.

“Think about the difference in the types of books that are in the libraries today, in our schools, that children have access to,” Winder said. “... things are different in our libraries today than when any of us grew up. Something’s different.”

The committee voted on party lines to send both bills to the floor in the 14th order, which is the order of business in which the Senate considers amendments. The Legislature had originally aimed to end the session on Friday, but lawmakers on Friday said they would return Monday.

The Senate still faces a long list of bills to take action on before legislators may go home for the session, including these bills. The House adjourned Friday until Tuesday.

This article originally appeared in the Idaho Press, read more on IdahoPress.com.

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