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Opponents say bill to change Montana obscenity law could have ‘debilitating’ effects

by BLAIR MILLER Daily Montanan
| January 20, 2023 9:55 AM

Libraries would be better off banning children. Museums might have to censor or throw out pictures of naked victims of the Holocaust or famine. They might need to toss out the Bible too.

These were among the arguments from opponents – including librarians, museum directors, and municipal and religious officials – of House Bill 234 who testified Thursday at the House Judiciary Committee.

But proponents, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, said they believe their children have too much access to materials they feel the kids shouldn’t be exposed to.

“There should never be, ever be, obscene material or pornographic instruction in any of our public schools,” Arntzen said.

Sponsored by Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, the measure would open public library, museum and public school employees to criminal charges, potential fines up to $500 and six months of jail time under Montana’s obscenity law.

“If this bill were passed, this library’s exposure to lawsuits and therefore its insurance and legal costs would shoot through the roof,” said Mitch Grady, the director of the Livingston-Park County Public Library. “… It’s frustrating to think of how much of [the city and county’s] money would be spent on endless, pointless legal wrangling rather than on collections and services.”

He said his first thought was that the easiest way to get around those costs would be to close the library to minors entirely — a “Draconian” move.

PHALEN'S BILL, as introduced, would amend a section of Montana Code Annotated that deals with publicly displaying or disseminating obscene material to minors, such as when gas stations use “blinder racks” in order to protect pornographic magazines from public view in order to not violate the law.

The current statute says public school, library and museum employees cannot violate the law if the material or performance was disseminated in line with policies of their respective boards or governing bodies. Those same people do not violate the law if an exhibition showing nudity is shown “for a bona fide scientific or medical purpose.”

Phalen’s bill would strip board protection for those employees, opponents argued, and it would remove the ability for libraries and museums to show nudity for scientific or medical purposes.

Nationwide, certain religious groups and right-leaning organizations have pushed to ban materials containing explanations of sex, romance, and LGBTQ+ issues they deem to be obscene.

Phalen said he brought the bill because he wants his grandchildren “to grow up in a society that allows them to be children,” and he believes libraries that do not carry those kinds of materials “have nothing to worry about.”

Opponents of his measure said exactly the opposite.

“No state in the country has passed a law to this effect thus far,” said Sam Forstag, representing the Montana Library Association, in opposition to the bill.

He and other library officials said libraries would incur massive liability insurance cost increases and have to spend more money responding to protests and legal claims that could come from the community or anywhere else.

Many of them also said not only would the bill do away with local control – the boards that have control over materials in libraries are often approved by elected city or county commissioners – it also takes away parental responsibility.

Grady said whether materials are actually, or only perceived to be, controversial would lead to libraries having to remove books regardless. He said that removes a measure of parental control.

“The library doesn’t presume to act in place of the parent. We don’t, and shouldn’t, try to enforce a particular family’s rules for kids when their parents aren’t around,” he said.

Much of the discussion at Thursday’s hearing centered around what MCA already defines as obscene and the broadness of that definition.

JACK LONGBINE, a city trustee for the Livingston-Park County Public Library board, said he’s a conservative Baptist minister who fears the bill could ban the Bible from libraries.

“The definition is too obscure, and the problem is different people have different definitions of it,” he told the committee.

He and other opponents talked about multiple passages from the book containing elicit descriptions of rape, dismemberment, false idols and more that could potentially be construed as obscene. Longbine said attempts of this nature also restrict his ability to communicate with younger people about religion.

“If they say, ‘Hey, you and people like you are trying to censor everything. If you won’t read things we want, why should we read the Bible?’” he said. “It creates a real problem for me, and they have a legitimate point.”

Sheila Elwin, another Livingston library board member, said she is a conservative fundamentalist evangelical who believes libraries already do a fine job of dividing their collections into age-appropriate sections. She, too, worried the Bible could be banned — either as obscene or by future “secular” legislatures as restricted religious literature.

Stephen Underwood, the pastor at Central Christian Church in Great Falls, said Montana families are capable of keeping their children educated, informed and safe. He called the bill “an empty political gesture capitalizing on divisive culture war rhetoric.”

Examples used at Thursday’s hearing by bill proponents as to why it should become law included foster children who had experienced abuse having memories triggered by certain materials, concerns over young children having access to materials meant for older teenagers and young adults, and “banned book” lists made in states like Texas and Florida that contain materials found in some public and school libraries in Montana.

“Sexualized materials contribute to the victimization and abuse of children,” said Heather Higgs, who described herself as a parent of children in Bozeman Public Schools.

Jeff Laszloffy, with the Montana Family Foundation, said the bill was “about restoring the trust and respect between parents and schools.” He used Webster’s definition of obscene in testifying, saying he did not want to use words in Montana’s definition because schoolchildren might be watching the hearing.

“Schools do not exist to unteach children what children are taught at home. This is what causes animosity between parents and schools,” he said.

Several opponents, however, questioned if materials like Michelangelo’s “David” could be deemed obscene, or those showing nude people ravaged by famine in Africa, or a historic exhibit on a Montana veteran’s experience in Vietnam showing Marines bathing in a river.

Another example included a museum or book showing photos of people at concentration camps stripped of their clothes being sent to gas chambers in order to educate people on the horrors of the Holocaust.

“Should we not include evidence of this vile act just because it offends someone uncomfortable with the naked form?” said Matt Lautzenheiser, the executive director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and board member of the Museums Association of Montana.

“History must be told in its entirety and must include elements that some may find objectionable,” he added. “It cannot be sanitized and made pretty because that isn’t the truth. It can be ugly, but in this ugliness, there are lessons to be learned for the betterment of society.”

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena. The Daily Montanan is a nonprofit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.

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