Alabama lawmakers advance bill that could lead to prosecution of librarians

Apr 25, 2024, 4:56 PM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers on Thursday advanced legislation that could see librarians prosecuted under the state’s obscenity law for providing “harmful” materials to minors, the latest in a wave of bills in Republican-led states targeting library content and decisions.

The Alabama House of Representatives voted 72-28 for the bill that now moves to the Alabama Senate. The legislation comes amid a soaring number of book challenges — often centered on LGBTQ content — and efforts in a number of states to ban drag queen story readings.

“This is an effort to protect children. It is not a Democrat bill. It’s not a Republican bill. It’s a people bill to try to protect children,” Republican Rep. Arnold Mooney, the bill’s sponsor, said during debate.

The Alabama bill removes the existing exemption for public libraries in the state’s obscenity law. It also expands the definition of prohibited sexual conduct to include any “sexual or gender oriented conduct” at K-12 public schools or public libraries that “exposes minors to persons who are dressed in sexually revealing, exaggerated, or provocative clothing or costumes, or are stripping, or engaged in lewd or lascivious dancing, presentations, or activities.”

Under the process laid out in the bill, a librarian in a public library or public K-12 school could face a misdemeanor charge if the librarian fails to remove material or cease conduct that violates the state’s obscenity law within seven days of receiving a written complaint from the public.

Opponents argued that proposal would threaten librarians with criminal prosecution at the whims of community members who disagreed with their decisions on books and programs.

“This process will be manipulated and used to arrest librarians that you don’t like, and not because they did anything criminal. It’s because you disagree with them,” Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa, said during debate.

Craig Scott, president of the Alabama Library Association, said libraries already have longstanding procedures for reviewing the suitability of content and for the public to submit challenges if they disagree with a decision.

“Why are they coming into libraries or thinking that they can come in and run the place better than us as professionals?” Scott said in a phone interview. He predicted the state will lose “lawsuit after lawsuit” if the bill becomes law.

A judge in July temporarily blocked Arkansas from enforcing a similar law that would have allowed criminal charges against librarians and booksellers for providing “harmful” materials to minors.

Scott, who began his career in 1977, said he has never seen anything like the current climate. He said the Gadsden Public Library where he works has seen one person — who eventually obtained a role in library governance — challenge 30 books. Most of the book challenges are related to books with content about gender identity. But they also have included a book about a boy who wants to become a ballet dancer, he said.

“We are for the entire community. We have to be. We’ve got some books in here that are far right. We’ve got some books on the far left. But the library is for the entire community. We’ve got to stay in the middle as best we can, and they want to push us way off to the far right,” Scott said.

Republican Rep. David Faulkner, who worked on a substitute version of the bill that was approved by the House, disputed that the bill could have wide-ranging impact. He said courts have long interpreted what is obscene material.

The law takes away immunity that K-12 and public libraries had under the obscenity law, but it puts limits on when prosecutions could occur, Faulkner said.

“It’s only going to be a misdemeanor, and it’s only if, after knowing about the material, they didn’t do anything about it,” he said.

Rep. Neil Rafferty, a Democrat from Birmingham, said he was concerned that the bill’s language would allow someone to “target and harass people who might be dressed up in a Halloween costume” or wearing summer clothing that someone considered too revealing.

“I feel like this is a violation of the First Amendment, and it’s easily going to be abused,” he said.

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Alabama lawmakers advance bill that could lead to prosecution of librarians