News (USA)

West Virginia GOP wants to jail librarians who provide “obscene” books to minors

Person in handcuffs - only hands are shown
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Librarians, museum workers, and school educators could all be thrown in jail if West Virginia passes a new bill that would punish them for giving “obscene” materials to minors.

On Friday, the West Virginia House of Delegates voted 85-12 in favor of House Bill 4654. The bill would allow a pre-existing law, State Code 61-8A-2, to apply to the aforementioned workers who used to be exempt from it. The bill will now head to the state’s Republican-dominated Senate.

The state code targets any adult who knowingly and intentionally displays obscene materials to a minor who is not accompanied by a parent or guardian. Anyone who does so could be subject to felony charges and face up to $25,000 in fines and up to five years in prison.

However, like similar laws in other states, the West Virginian bill has a broad and subjective definition of what constitutes obscene materials. It includes “anything an average person believes depicts or describes sexually explicit conduct, nudity, sex or certain bodily functions; or anything a reasonable person would find lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” The Parkersburg News and Sentinel reported.

The bill’s opponents say the bill will cost local schools, museums, and libraries thousands in legal fees as they fight off challenges and legal prosecution for distributing art books and literary works containing depictions of sex that aren’t necessarily pornographic.

The bill could also cause workers to preemptively remove potentially offensive books from the shelves, possibly resulting in the removal of LGBTQ+-themed materials that conservatives often claim are “obscene.” The free speech organization PEN America said that 26% of books banned in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year had LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

“It is going to cost our counties and our librarians when these matters go to the court system. Because this is still vague, I’m scared,” West Virginia House Minority Leader Sean Hornbuckle (D) told the aforementioned publication, adding, “This is a very dangerous bill.”

House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty (D) said, “The librarians on staff might not know if a book has obscene matter in it or may or may not have shown it to someone, but because it was in the facility and it was sitting on a shelf, it could still be prosecuted. What you are seeing is done in third-world countries, and now it’s going to be a headline in West Virginia.”

The bill’s Republican supporters said that the proposed law will protect children.

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