Alabama Republicans Try to ‘Criminalize Librarians Simply for Doing Their Jobs’

“Not only is this wrong, it’s also unconstitutional. You are not protecting children; you are protecting extremists who are trying to dismantle the very foundations of my country.”

By Jessica Corbett. Published 4-3-2024 by Common Dreams.

Banned Books Week installation on the second floor of Kennedy Library at Cal Poly on Monday, September 24, 2018. Photo: Kennedy Library/flickr/CC

The Alabama Library Association and other critics on Wednesday called out the state’s Republican policymakers for pushing a new bill that opponents warn will unfairly jail librarians and have a chilling impact on collections.

House Bill 385, introduced Tuesday by state Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-43) and 30 other legislators, says that “under existing law, certain obscenity laws do not apply to public libraries, public school libraries, college libraries, or university libraries, or the employees or agents of any such libraries.”

“This bill would provide that these criminal obscenity laws do not apply to college or university libraries or their employees or agents, but do apply to public libraries, public school libraries, and their employees or agents,” the legislation continues.

H.B. 385 would also add the following language to the definition of sexual conduct: “Any sexual or gender-oriented material that knowingly exposes minors to persons who are dressed in sexually revealing, exaggerated, or provocative clothing or costumes, or are stripping, or engaged in lewd or lascivious dancing, presentations, or activities in K-12 public schools, public libraries, and other public places where minors are expected and are known to be present without parental consent.”

Matthew Layne, president of the Alabama Library Association, declared that “the message is clear—don’t arrest Alabama librarians and stop turning our libraries into political battlefields. Montgomery politicians are now seeking to criminalize librarians simply for doing their jobs.”

“Under H.B. 385, public and school librarians could be penalized or even arrested by prosecutors eager to follow the demands of Alabama Republican Chair John Wahl, an Alabama Public Library Service Board member, who’s willing to jail librarians for having books he considers unacceptable,” Layne said. “This bill is government overreach, robs parents of their rights, and would have a chilling effect on free speech by potentially incarcerating librarians because particular books are available, including even the Bible.”

EveryLibrary, which says it is “the nation’s first and only political action committee for libraries,” has created a webpage where Alabama residents can send a pre-written message to their state representatives, urging them to oppose H.B. 385.

“I am one of your constituents and I want to know why Alabama lawmakers think jailing librarians and chilling free speech is a winnable argument,” the message begins. Under H.B., 385, public and school libraries would be stripped [of] their obscenity exemption as extremists try to penalize them for having LGBTQ-affirming content, claiming sexually explicit material is available to children.”

“That is false but unsurprising since Clean Up Alabama and Moms for Liberty signaled this as their master plan from the very beginning,” the message continues, noting right-wing groups that have spearheaded national book-banning efforts in recent years.

PEN America found that from July 2021 to June 2023, there were at least 5,894 instances of book bans across 41 states and 247 public school districts. The group said last year that “Florida and Texas have continued to lead the country in number of bans, but the crisis has spread to 41 states.”

EveryLibrary’s message to Alabama lawmakers points out that a federal judge last year blocked enforcement of a similar Arkansas law criminalizing librarians and booksellers who provide minors with materials deemed “harmful” as the legal challenge moves through the courts.

“Stripping public and school libraries is a brazen attempt to chill free speech and deprive tax-paying American citizens like me of my right to choose reading material for my children, and academic freedom and privacy for minors, who enjoy a measure of First Amendment rights,” the message argues. “It also gives the most extremist parents, politicians, and school administrators undue power to restrict my access to information.”

“Not only is this wrong, it’s also unconstitutional,” the message adds. “You are not protecting children; you are protecting extremists who are trying to dismantle the very foundations of my country.”

The introduction of H.B. 385 comes as Alabama residents are already outraged by public library policy changes proposed by Republican Gov. Kay Ivey.

As reported last week: “According to the Alabama Public Library Service, Alabamians had submitted 416 public comments as of Monday, and 399 are opposed to adopting the administrative code changes Ivey proposed after fears of ‘inappropriate content’ for children sparked a wave of book challenges statewide. The public comment period ends April 29.”

This work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0).

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