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Librarians Face Possible Prison Terms For Sexually Explicit Books

Librarians could face years of imprisonment and tens of thousands in fines for providing sexually explicit, obscene or “harmful” books to children under new state laws that permit criminal prosecution of school and library personnel. At least seven states have passed such laws in the past two years, according to a Washington Post analysis, six of them in the past two months — although governors of Idaho and North Dakota vetoed the legislation. Another dozen states considered more than 20 similar bills this year, half of which are likely to come up again in 2024. Some of the laws impose severe penalties on librarians, who until now were exempted in almost every state from prosecution over obscene material — a carve-out meant to permit accurate lessons in topics such as sex education. All but one of the new laws target schools, while some also target the staff of public libraries and one affects book vendors.

An Arkansas measure effective Aug. 1 says school and public librarians, as well as teachers, can be imprisoned for up to six years or fined $10,000 if they distribute obscene or harmful texts. Library and free speech advocates were unaware of any instances so far in which a school staffer had been charged under the new laws. Most of the laws do not spell out who will decide what counts as obscene but suggest that courts will make the decision. Some educators and activists say the laws will forge a climate of fear among school librarians, leading to the censorship of books by and about LGBTQ individuals s the nation already faces a historic onslaught of challenges to books in those categories. “It will make sure the only literature students are exposed to fits into a narrow scope of what some people want the world to look like,” said Keith Gambill, president of the teachers union in Indiana, one of the states that adopted obscenity laws. “This is my 37th year in education. I’ve never seen anything like this. … We are entering a very frightening period.”


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