Obscenity bill raises questions beyond school libraries

4-H lessons, teacher shortage among concerns

By: - March 13, 2023 4:10 pm

A girl looking at books in a library (Photo by Getty Images).

A school librarian in Havre worries she might have to empty her bookshelves if a bill to revise obscenity laws passes.

“My No. 1 question is how are they going to police that?” said Jimmi Linn Brown, of Havre High School.

A public schools advocate, on the other hand, isn’t worried about the bill itself — Lance Melton, with the Montana School Boards Association, said adults already can’t lawfully provide obscene material to minors.

Plus, the law deals with public displays that are part of commercial establishments, not schools, he said. 

But Melton is worried about an underlying assumption.

“I am not concerned about this bill,” Melton said. “I am concerned about the whole context of discussion that starts with a proposition that school employees or trustees cannot be trusted or are at war with their families.

“They’re not.”

The head of the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education at the University of Montana is worried too. Her concern is about the profession at large.

Adrea Lawrence, dean of the college and incoming interim provost, said Montana already faces an existing teacher shortage, and legislation that hamstrings educators could fuel more harassment and threats against them.

“I worry about it just exacerbating the shortage,” Lawrence said. “And that’s not just a short-term issue. That has long-term implications for the economic and social future of the state.

In recent years, school libraries have been swept into a high-profile position in the culture wars in the U.S.

A report released in January and discussed in Education Week said political polarization in the country has led to tensions at schools. As debates over COVID-19 have diminished, controversy over books used in school classrooms and libraries has warmed up.

At the Montana Legislature this year, the conflict about whether public schools are providing students questionable material has played out over at least a couple of different bill hearings.

House Bill 234, which aims to restrict the dissemination of obscene material to minors, is among them and moving forward. It would amend a section of Montana Code that deals with crimes against public order.

As written, public school employees who provide materials that are deemed obscene to minors could face prosecution.   

Originally, the bill was drafted to restrict the dissemination of obscene material to minors by public library and museum staff, but it’s since been amended. It makes exceptions for them and for employees of colleges and universities, as currently on the books, but not for employees of public schools.

In a hearing, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen expressed support for HB 234: “There should never be, ever be, obscene material or pornographic instruction in any of our public schools.”

Melton agrees — but isn’t supporting or opposing the bill.

Montana law already says adults can’t provide obscene material to minors, he said, pointing to MCA 45-8-201. It defines obscenity, and it includes a penalty of $500 to $1,000 and six months of jail time for violating the law.

“Schools and libraries have complied with this law to my knowledge,” Melton said.

He said his organization is not taking a stance on the bill in part because it doesn’t appear that section of law even applies to schools. The bill would amend MCA 45-8-206, which relates to “any commercial establishment or newsstand.” 

But Melton said the legislation is based on an unwarranted assumption that teachers and school boards are at odds with the public they serve. However, over the years, polling in Montana consistently shows otherwise, he said, including a survey from fall 2022 with a +/-4% confidence index.

In response to a question about whom participants trust the most among public employees, 65.3% of respondents named teachers and locally elected trustees. Of those polled, 4.8% trust the superintendent of public instruction the most, and 0.5% trust legislators the most.

“Teachers are the gold standard for the trust accorded by families, the first place. Trustees are second. I am proud of that,” Melton said.

Parents might disagree about the information their children are learning in school, but Melton said discussions about education should happen in a different venue. 

“The public does not expect these debates to take place in the halls of the legislature,” Melton said. “They expect them to take place, if anywhere, in the school boardroom. That’s where they belong.”

The Montana Library Association opposes the bill, but board President Angela Archuleta said similar legislation is being introduced nationally.

“It feels like that’s the only reason they’re being pushed here,” Archuleta said.

She said the bill is written in such a vague way, it could be misinterpreted when it comes to public schools: Is a 4-H lesson about breeding horses in an agriculture class going to be considered bestiality, for example?

Regardless, Archuleta said Montana’s schools don’t offer students pornographic material. She discussed the bill in a recent opinion piece published in The Billings Gazette.

“Criminal obscenity laws are about pornography, adult movie theaters, and adult bookstores,” Archuleta wrote. “And extending those criminal penalties to schools would make our jobs immeasurably more difficult.”

Archuleta said Montanans largely trust their librarians and like their libraries.

“The fact that educators are still in it (HB 234) is rather disturbing,” Archuleta said.

In Havre, Brown worries about how the bill could affect her school library. She points to recent outcomes in other states. 

“Are you aware of what is happening in Florida? Total libraries are being emptied out because the content isn’t approved,” Brown said.

She said nearly everything in her library could be questioned. She subscribes to Runner’s World magazine, for example.

“When women run, what do they run in? A lot of them have sports bras and shorts. That’s on the magazine cover. That’s not appropriate,” Brown said.

The school’s art teacher uses books, and a lot of art books include pictures of nudes, and some autobiographies talk about pornography or incest: “How can we police all of that?”

Brown received her library endorsement in 2014, and only a couple of times has she been questioned about items in the school’s collection, she said.

She herself has set aside a couple of items, such as a women’s medical encyclopedia with drawings “that are a little bit questionable,” and another similar book that talks about empowering women. It has drawings she considers inappropriate.

Brown said she doesn’t take them out of the library, but she sets them aside and only provides them if someone specifically asks for them. She makes sure the swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated isn’t on display either.

But the library contains books on a wide range of subjects, and for children who are in special education and read at a lower level, and then for students who are reading college and career books.

Once, she had a mother challenge her on the graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The mom told Brown she couldn’t believe she included it in the library, Brown said.

“Matter of fact, I do, because it’s part of the college and career reading curriculum,” Brown said.

If the bill passes, she believes school administrators are going to have to discuss how to proceed.

“I just really feel there is too much censorship going on in all of this whole process,” Brown said.

UM College of Education Dean Lawrence said the bill might be a detractor for prospective teachers. She worries they will see legislation that says they might be punished for doing what they believe is responsible and be dissuaded from the profession.

During the pandemic, teachers were harassed and threatened, and Lawrence said the bill could cause similar conflict: “I think this all could fuel that type of behavior, and that’s really not what we need right now. I worry about that.”

Lawrence said fewer students are enrolling to study education nationally, and while Montana’s numbers have remained fairly stable, she said a steady stream of teachers isn’t a given, especially given the pay.

“This type of law could really depress that,” she said of interest in the education professions.

She also said the law raises larger questions.

“What is the purpose of public schooling? And do we continue to believe in that as something that our society needs and wants?”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Brown of Havre noted many art books contain nude pictures, but she did not indicate nudes are used in the classroom.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.