A Pennsylvania librarian opens a book

A librarian checks in books at the circulation desk at the Reading Public Library in Pennsylvania on June 7, 2021.

(Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

Alabama House Passes Bill That Could Be 'Used to Arrest Librarians'

"I feel like this is a violation of the First Amendment, and it's easily going to be abused," one Democratic lawmaker said.

The Alabama House of Representatives voted 72-28 on Thursday in favor of a bill that would apply the state's criminal obscenity laws to public libraries, public school libraries, and the people who work there.

Critics, including the Alabama Library Association, have warned that the bill could see librarians jailed and argued that it violates the First Amendment.

"This is a pig," Rep. Chris England (D-70), said during the debate, as AL.com reported. "It is a bad bill, and when you attempt to take what is normally non-criminal conduct and make it criminal, you bend yourself into ways that potentially not only violate the Constitution but potentially subject somebody to an illegal arrest with no due process."

"Why are they coming into libraries or thinking that they can come in and run the place better than us as professionals?"

House Bill 385 would allow anyone to write a letter to a school district superintendent or head librarian claiming a book is obscene. The Montgomery Advertiser explained further:

The library would be required to remove the materials within seven days of receiving the required written notice. Failure to remove said materials would result in a Class C misdemeanor upon the first offense, a Class B misdemeanor upon the second offense, and a Class A misdemeanor after the third and beyond. They may challenge the claim during the seven-day period.
In Alabama, a Class C misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of three months in jail and fee of $500. The maximum sentence for a Class B misdemeanor is six months of jail time and a $3,000 fee, while a Class A misdemeanor carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $6,000 fee.

The bill also adds to the definition of the "sexual conduct" minors must be protected from to include "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."

During the debate, England warned, "This process will be manipulated and used to arrest librarians that you don't like, and not because they did anything criminal. It's because you disagree with them," as The Associated Press reported.

Rep. Mary Moore (D-59) warned that the description of sexual conduct was loose enough that it could apply to students dressed up for prom, according to AL.com.

"Some of them would be under the jail because of this," Moore said.

Rep. Neil Rafferty (D-54) also expressed concerns that the language could apply to people in Halloween costumes or wearing summer clothing.

"I feel like this is a violation of the First Amendment, and it's easily going to be abused," he said, according to AP.

Rep. Barbara Drummond (D-103) said the bill was "putting lipstick on a pig," and added that the government "can't legislate morality," and that it would prevent children from "having an open mind," AL.com reported.

The bill comes amid increased politicization of libraries and attempts to ban books, especially in Republican-led states.

In Alabama, the legislature is also considering making $6.6 million in public library funding dependent on whether a library relocates materials deemed inappropriate for children, AL.com reported further. Nationwide, PEN America found that the total number of book bans in schools and libraries during just the first half of the 2023-2024 school year was greater than all the titles banned in 2022-2023, and that number had already jumped by 33% from the school year before.

The bill applying obscenity laws to libraries now heads to the Senate, but Alabama Library Association president Craig Scott told AP the state should expect to lose "lawsuit after lawsuit" if it becomes law.

"Why are they coming into libraries or thinking that they can come in and run the place better than us as professionals?" Scott asked.

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