Do Montana Schools Really Need One More Thing to Worry About?
I may be too late.
The Montana Legislature is currently considering House Bill 234, legislation that limits the presentation of so-called "obscene" material to minors, which carries criminal penalties for school employees and librarians. As of this writing, the bill is scheduled for a third reading today, February 9, 2023.
The Montana Library Association published on its website today a message labeled “Urgent Action Needed.”
Inside the message they explain:
Teachers, School Librarians, School Boards, Schools, and School Employees can be criminally prosecuted for books in their classroom or library that are considered “obscene”. This new law would supersede the hard work, professional training, and comprehensive collection development policies that each local school district has created to address the unique needs of their community.
Simply put, the Montana government wants to tell you what your kids are allowed to read in school.
Here’s the issue: “obscene” is a subjective word. A quick search on the legal definition of obscenity pulls up this explanation from the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute:
Obscenity laws are concerned with prohibiting lewd, filthy, or disgusting words or pictures. Indecent materials or depictions, normally speech or artistic expressions, may be restricted in terms of time, place, and manner, but are still protected by the First Amendment. There are major disagreements regarding obscene material and the government's role in regulation.
While the bill doesn’t mention this, and neither does the Montana Library Association, I have a hunch about the goal of a bill like this. I suspect this bill is intended to keep books with LGBTQ themes out of school libraries. With a word as open-ended as “obscene” and a spectrum of tolerance, I could easily see parents complaining about books where LGBTQ characters kiss, for example, and have it be construed as “disgusting” or “indecent.”
A petition on the Take Action for Libraries website explains that this could lead to "lawsuits over anything a person might find ‘obscene’, from classic literature to anatomy textbooks."
What we lose with this sort of legislation is far greater than any “protection” we may gain. Schools already experience enough pressure trying to keep teachers from quitting. We lose the opportunity for engagement and discourse and freedom from censorship, not to mention the time lost litigating these infractions.
As I said, it may be too late to add your voice to the conversation, but if this is important to you, you can still try. If there’s any silver lining, remember that in general, banning or challenging books only makes more people want to read them.
Read a book. Support your local librarians.