A Nebraska bill to subject librarians to charges for giving ‘obscene material’ to children fails

Mar 20, 2024, 2:30 PM

A bill that would have held school librarians and teachers criminally responsible for providing “obscene material” to Nebraska students in grades K-12 failed to break a filibuster Wednesday in the Legislature.

But heated debate over it led the body’s Republican Speaker of the Legislature to slash debate times in half on bills he deemed as covering “social issues” for the remaining 13 days of the session.

State Sen. Joni Albrecht, who introduced the bill, said it simply would close a “loophole” in the state’s existing obscenity laws that prohibit adults from giving such material to minors. But critics panned it as a way for a vocal minority to ban books they don’t like from school and public library shelves.

Book bans and attempted bans soared last year in the U.S. Almost half of the challenged books are about communities of color, LGBTQ+ people and other marginalized groups, according to a recent report from the American Library Association. Among the books frequently challenged is Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

Opponents of the bill argued that children are not accessing obscene material as it is currently defined in the law — which would essentially cover graphic pornography and erotica — in school and public libraries.

Instead, they said, the bill would be used by a handful of people who want to ban books they don’t like and would have a chilling effect free speech. It would have allowed a handful of people who would like to ban books they don’t like to threaten educators and librarians with criminal charges, opposing lawmakers said, likely lead librarians to pull books from the shelves simply to avoid the conflict.

Debate on the measure grew heated over the two days it took for lawmakers to discuss it, and one Republican lawmaker who name-checked a fellow legislator while reading a graphic account of sexual violence from a best-selling memoir is now being investigated for sexual harassment.

Supporters of the bill denied that the purpose of the bill was an end-around way to banning books. But many then proceeded to bash the very books and material — including sex education curriculum in schools — as being dangerous for children.

Albrecht said Tuesday during debate that sex education wasn’t taught when she was in school 50 years ago, adding, “We just figured it out.” A few male lawmakers openly pined for the days decades ago when most children grew up in two-parent families and extolled keeping young girls “naive.”

That led other lawmakers to push back. Sen. Carol Blood noted that the prevalence of two-parent families decades ago had less to do with morals than the fact that women were unable to hold credit cards and bank accounts in their own names, making them financially dependent on their husbands and sometimes confining them in abusive marriages. Sen. Jen Day noted that sex education has been shown to help protect children against sexual predators.

Sen. Danielle Conrad, a free speech advocate and former director of the Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, chastised bill supporters, saying they were pandering to those who want to ban books.

“This debate is divorced from reality,” she said. “It’s embarrassing to Nebraska. And we have bigger, important issues to address.”

By Wednesday, Speaker of the Legislature Sen. John Arch announced that he had had enough. A bill in Nebraska’s unique one-chamber Legislature must get through three rounds of debate to pass, and the rules generally allow eight hours of of debate in the first round, four hours in the second and two in the final round before a vote to end debate can be held.

Arch said that moving forward this session, he would cut that to four hours in the first round, two in the second and one in the last round “for bills which are controversial and emotionally charged.”

“I’m not referring to traditional governmental policy bills such as taxes or creating and funding new programs or existing programs,” he said, adding that debate on those bills, while also often controversial and heated, also often leads to compromise.

“That is not the case with social issue bills,” he said. “Members generally go into debate with their minds made up, and prolonged debate only serves the purpose of fanning the fires of contention.”

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A Nebraska bill to subject librarians to charges for giving ‘obscene material’ to children fails