West Virginia Wants to Prosecute School Librarians Over ‘Obscene’ Books

Democratic minority whip Shawn Fluharty (D) said HB 4654 is what’s “done in third-world countries, and now it’s going to be a headline in West Virginia."

West Virginia Wants to Prosecute School Librarians Over ‘Obscene’ Books

Republican lawmakers are continuing to ramp up their war on books in schools. Last week, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill that would make school librarians and teachers criminally liable if underage students have access to books with “obscene material” in libraries and classrooms. The bill, HB 4654, now advances to the state Senate. Teachers and librarians in violation could be charged with a felony, fined up to $25,000, and even face up to five years in prison.

What do West Virginia Republicans consider “obscene material”? Anything that “an average person believes depicts or describes sexually explicit conduct,” as well as  “anything a reasonable person would find lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” according to West Virginia’s state code, which HB 4654 cites.  But due to its lack of specificity, and given Republicans’ years-long campaign to baselessly equate queerness with pedophilia and “grooming,” the bill appears to be a backdoor to crack down on any books or curriculum that even reference LGBTQ identity,

In a particularly concerning move, the House rejected a Democratic legislator’s proposed amendment to protect teachers from criminal liability for merely teaching sexual health curriculum. “I’m not so sure who the arbiter of what is obscene and what isn’t,” Del. Mike Pushkin said of the House’s rejection of his amendment. “This makes sure we’re not going to penalize teachers simply for teaching curriculum in the classroom.”

At a Friday hearing for the bill, Democratic minority whip Shawn Fluharty (D) argued that “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.” Fluharty said Republicans’ bill, which passed 85-12 along party lines, reflects what’s “done in third-world countries, and now it’s going to be a headline in West Virginia.” House Minority Leader Sean Hornbuckle (D) pointed out to The Parkersburg News and Sentinel that HB 4654 would inevitably incur costly legal challenges, and already under-funded schools would foot the bill: “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 … This is a very dangerous bill.”

Del. Elliott Pritt (R) claimed the bill that he supports “does not ban books or censor speech” because the books in question “can still be bought privately by people if they’re adults.” Of course, the issue at hand is that if passed, the bill will be used to target and criminalize teachers and school staff over pretty much anything that conservative, anti-LGBTQ officials deem “obscene,” which… is a lot of things!

In 2023, the American Library Association warned that allegations of obscenity are often weaponized to ban books that explore themes of queer identity as well as race. In the first eight months of 2023, the organization found that 700 attempts were made to censor library materials, which is a 20% increase from the same reporting period from the previous year. In 2024, the organization has already tracked 90 bills to “impair the ability of libraries, library staff, and library boards to acquire and provide diverse materials, resources, and programming to their communities,” per the ALA, with the most bills coming out of Tennessee and South Carolina. West Virginia’s HB 4654 is all the more terrifying because of its criminal provisions, which go above and beyond just banning books to threaten teachers and school librarians with jail time.

In recent years, Republicans have been escalating attacks on books across the country. In the 2021 school year alone, Texas banned over 800 books from schools. In 2023, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law what’s known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law to prohibit classroom discussion of queer identity from kindergarten to third grade. In January, the New Republic reported that a Florida school district removed the literal dictionary from library shelves because it included definitions of sexual conduct in its pages.

HB 4654 now advances to West Virginia’s Republican-controlled Senate, and if it passes, it will go to the desk of the state’s Republican governor. Gov. Jim Justice (R) hasn’t yet commented on whether he’d sign the bill.

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