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Idaho Senate rejects bill on ‘harmful’ library material. Is bill ‘worse than this’ next?

Senate lawmakers on Thursday killed a bill to allow Idaho residents to challenge library books they deemed “harmful” to minors, halting for the time being another effort to regulate public book collections and allow penalties against libraries.

What prevented the bill from passing in an 18-17 vote was an unusual accord between Democrats and the far-right bloc of Republicans, the Idaho Freedom Caucus — although they had entirely different reasons for voting “no.”

Most Democrats opposed the bill because they believe that the controversy over library books is largely invented and that allowing lawsuits against libraries could risk shuttering or hindering the knowledge hubs in local communities.

The Republicans who opposed the bill mostly did so because they said it was too complex, or too bureaucratic, and would make it too difficult for parents to question the books on library shelves available to their children.

“This is going to essentially make parents the police of our libraries,” Sen. Scott Herndon, R-Sagle, told lawmakers. “The burden is entirely on them, and I wish we could do that differently.”

Herndon voted no on the bill.

Senate Bill 1289 would have allowed parents or other community members to sue libraries if they believed a library or school board erred in deciding that a book wasn’t “harmful.” It would have required libraries to create committees to review challenged books available to children, and would have given parents the ability to appeal a committee’s decision to a school board or library board, and to the courts.

If library staff members concluded that a book was harmful to minors based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s obscenity test, it could be required to be relocated to an adult section. If the library failed to move the book, a parent could sue and be awarded $250 in statutory damages, plus other “actual damages.”

The bill was crafted by Sen. Geoff Schroeder, R-Mountain Home, and Rep. Jaron Crane, R-Nampa, after the lawmakers separately introduced library bills earlier this year.

The lawmakers did not immediately respond to a question about whether they plan to introduce another version of their bill. Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, who chairs a powerful House committee and is Jaron’s brother, told the Statesman that he will hold meetings with lawmakers to determine a path forward for another library bill — which could mean a second try with an earlier measure or an entirely new piece of legislation.

Schroeder told senators on Thursday that his bill would have provided “a reasoned, deliberative process” to answer a question “burning in everyone’s minds”: whether libraries have harmful, or pornographic, books and other materials in their catalogs available to children. He said his bill would not ban books or ideas.

At public hearings this year, testimony largely opposed passing bills to regulate librarians. Some testimony in favor of the legislation featured objections to books that include gay characters or relationships, and even claims that libraries were “grooming” children for sex trafficking.

Sen. Cindy Carlson, R-Riggins, said she opposed the bill because “you have to challenge the book in order for the material to be removed.”

Sen. Linda Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said she was queasy about any bill that allowed for lawsuits against the “safest place” in her community, but she voted in favor, saying she didn’t want something “worse than this” instead.

While Democrats largely maintained their disapproval for library bills, multiple members noted that this version included lesser penalties than previous iterations. A bill that failed two years ago could have jailed librarians who ran afoul of the law, while a bill vetoed by Gov. Brad Little last year could have handed them $2,500 fines.

The changes were enough to convince Sen. Carrie Semmelroth, D-Boise, who voted yes.

“It’s the best bill yet we’ve seen on this subject,” said Sen. Rick Just, D-Boise, though he still opposed it because “there is no plague of pornography in our libraries.”

Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, cautioned lawmakers before the vote that if this one didn’t pass, there could be a harsher bill offered later this session.

“For those of you who say you’re not ever going to vote for a library bill, your opposition ... may not kill that bill,” Winder said. “And you may end up with something a lot worse than what’s before you today.”

Winder said he didn’t mean his words as a threat, but the Boise senator told colleagues that he does not want to adjourn without a new library law.

“So I really ask you to think hard about what you might get if you don’t get this one,” he said.