West Virginia House to Vote on Bill That Could Lead to Librarians Facing Jail Time

In fiery speech in support of the bill, Del. Brandon Steele called libraries ‘the sanctuary for pedophilia.'

Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, called for support of his legislation, House Bill 4654, in the House Judiciary on Monday, Feb. 12, 2024, in Charleston, W.Va. (Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography)

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A bill that would open up librarians to felony charges for showing obscene material to minors will head to the House of Delegates for consideration.

On Monday, bill sponsor  Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, called for support of his legislation in a fiery speech, in which he said libraries were “the sanctuary for pedophilia” where people needed to be held accountable for exposing children to obscene content.

“I’m voting to protect children from being groomed and targeted by pedophiles and get rid of the sanctuary that was set up in our code 25 years ago,” Steele said to members of the House Committee on the Judiciary.

He continued, “If it’s a crime in the parking lot, it’s a crime in the building — period. I hope the chilling effect chills the pedophiles. We’re not going to create a safe space for them.”

Libraries are currently exempt from state law that bans displaying or disseminating obscene materials to minors.

The legislation, House Bill 4654, had stalled for a few weeks after a public hearing in late January, where some people in support of the bill read outloud graphic sexual material they said was found in school libraries. Those opposing the legislation, including several librarians, said the bill would open libraries to potential costly prosecution.

The Judiciary Committee took it up again and passed it through with a 21-3 vote.

The committee’s three Democrat members voted against the bill, citing concerns over censorship and the measure’s failure to define obscene. They said its broad definition could lead to community members challenging the display of the Bible or the “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“While this bill doesn’t technically ban books, the impact of the bill is to remove books from our shelves,” said Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia.

Hansen also pointed out the potential cost to librarians, some of whom are employed by schools.

An attorney for the Legislature told lawmakers that the librarians would be on the hook for their own legal fees.

Librarians could face a $25,000 fine or five years in prison under the state’s obscenity laws regarding minors.

Megan Tarbett, president of the West Virginia Library Association, told lawmakers during a lengthy bill debate that the state’s 171 public libraries already had a system in place to decide what types of books are appropriate to display. There is a separate system for patrons, including parents, to challenge the inclusion of a book in the library.

Around 50 books had been challenged, Tarbett estimated.

“A handful of library systems have had multiple challenges to their collections, but it is not widespread,” she said. “5.2 million items were borrowed from libraries last year. Out of 1.2 million library books borrowed last year, the vast majority were checked out on a parent’s card — not the children’s card.”

In response, Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said, “We learned here today that there’s a challenge process that’s being followed.

“This bill has been sitting here for years. Nothing crazy has happened, we’ve just run out of bills to use for political purposes. The bill probably isn’t going to do a whole lot, but it’s going to have some librarians fear they got locked up.”

Del. J.B. Akers, R-Kanawha, questioned if the library’s screening system was adequate. He presented a photocopied page from “Gender Queer,” a book that Tarbett said was typically shelved in the adult graphic novel section of the library.

Akers asked Tarbett to describe what was displayed.

“I do believe it is a sexual act,” she responded.

Akers, a parent, said he was in full support of the legislation, which he said wasn’t aimed at banning books. “We’re saying don’t put this in the school library. These are graphic, sexual novels,” he explained.

Tarbett also warned lawmakers that the bill could lead to staffing challenges as librarians could fear prosecution. The state’s universities don’t offer a degree in library sciences, so the libraries rely on out-of-state applicants to fill jobs.

The bill will need to be taken up by the full House by Feb. 25.

West Virginia Watch is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. West Virginia Watch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Leann Ray for questions: info@westvirginiawatch.com. Follow West Virginia Watch on Facebook and Twitter.

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