MOVCAC – Words are Words but Pictures Show the Facts

Parkersburg News and Sentinel
Steven Allen Adams
February 13, 2024

Steven Allen Adams- State government reporter and columnist for Ogden Newspapers

West Virginia House Judiciary Committee discusses jail time over books

CHARLESTON — Lawmakers Monday finally took a look at a bill that could throw the book at librarians over books deemed by some to be obscene.

The House Judiciary recommended House Bill 4654 – removing bona fide schools, public libraries, and museums from the list of exemptions from criminal liability relating to distribution and display to a minor of obscene matter – to the full House in a 21-3 vote Monday evening after nearly two-and-a-half hours of discussion.

The bill would lift criminal liability exemptions from schools in the presentation of local or state-approved curriculum or public libraries and museums displaying obscene matter to a minor when the child is accompanied by a parent/guardian.

Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, is the lead sponsor of the bill. Steele said his intention was to lift criminal liability protections in libraries so that the criminal laws about displaying obscene material to minors without their parent’s supervision would apply universally.

“What this bill does is remove an exemption from an existing crime,” Steele said. “What no one seems to want to talk about in here is that this is a crime everywhere except the public library or a school or a museum.”

Steele believes he is protecting children from being groomed by child sex predators, though no evidence was presented that libraries are known grounds for pedophiles.

“What I hope the chilling effect of this legislation is is to remove the sanctuary for pedophilia that exists in our code,” Steele said. “I’m taking a vote to protect children from being groomed and targeted by pedophiles … and putting everyone in the same playing field. If it is a crime in the parking lot, it’s a crime in the building. Period.”

State Code defines obscene matter as 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. According to State Code 61-8A-2, any adult who knowingly and intentionally displays obscene matter to a minor could be charged with a felony, fined up to $25,000 and face up to five years in prison if convicted.

“I’m pretty sure anything you pull up on your phone will be worse than what you can pull up at your local library,” said House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio. “The bill itself won’t do a whole lot. It might have some librarians thinking they’ll get locked up or school teachers thinking they’ll get locked up or prosecuted, because what we learned today is there are grey areas to this.”

According to Megan Tarbett, chair of the West Virginia Library Association, all library systems in the state are different, but most have processes for the public to challenge books they find concerning. Review processes sometimes involve library staff or the library boards, which can decide to either keep the book, move it to a more appropriate section, or remove the book.

“Our collection development policies vary through library systems, but our library system chooses its books locally,” said Tarbett, a former member of the West Virginia Library Commission who serves as the director of the Putnam County Public Library.

“It could be your branch library, it could be a large central library, but usually the branch library chooses what is in there,” Tarbett continued. “They do look at national trends and they do look at award winners, but usually we’re choosing books that people in that community want.”

Tarbett said many libraries have unattended child policies that limit where children can go on their own without supervision. And some libraries have age limits for when minors can apply for their own library cards.

Tarbett testified that there were approximately 5.2 million books borrowed from 171 libraries in West Virginia in 2023, with 1.2 million books in children’s literature. Most of those children’s books were checked out using a parent’s library card. However, Tarbett could only recall approximately 50 times when specific books were challenged.

“Millions of books on the shelves, concerned parents all throughout this state, concerned citizens throughout this state, but we’ve had fewer than 50 challenges,” Fluharty said. “This bill belongs in the fiction section.”

Jeff Smith, a representative of MOVCAC (formerly the Marietta 9-12 Project), said his group has been working to have certain books his group considers to be obscene removed from the Parkersburg and Wood County Public Library to no avail. These books sometimes feature depictions of sexual acts. One book that was challenged was “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human.”

“This was on the second level in the basement with ‘Teens’ this big above it,’” Smith said, demonstrating how big the sign was. “This is being marketed to teens and kids. We can call them teens, but they’re under 18. That book was challenged, but it met the criteria of the library.”

“When I look at that material and I look at (State Code) … I just can’t find any contemporary adult community standard that would find an average person – taken as a whole – would find that material has any artistic, serious literally, political, or scientific value,” said Del. Rick Hillenbrand, R-Hampshire.

Now that the “Words have been seen and read” here are just a few PICTURES from the “Books”

You decide…