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Banning Books in North Dakota

February 8, 2023

Book bans proliferated in 2022, and they’ve continued into the new year. On January 17, 2023, North Dakota House Representatives Mike Lefor and Vicky Steiner introduced House Bill 1205. The bill’s aim, like many recent pieces of censorship legislation, is to ban books that contain “sexually explicit” content from public libraries.

What, exactly, is “sexually explicit” content? According to the bill, the term encompasses “deviant sexual intercourse,” “sadomasochistic abuse,” “sexual perversion,” sexual identity, and/or gender identity. The public, using that definition, can submit removal requests to libraries regarding books that violate the bill. Libraries must individually develop review processes. Should a librarian not comply with such requests, they may be found guilty of a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to 30 days in jail, a fine of $1,500, or both.

Book bans anywhere are disturbing; a book ban in a public library is uniquely so. Public libraries are a site that guarantees free books and other cultural materials, along with a slew of other resources. They play a critical social role in our communities. Banning books from often the only free place to get books in a given community means that people will be left without the opportunity to ever consume so-called “sexually explicit” material. In so doing, the bill leaves people without the opportunity to answer concrete questions about themselves, their health, and their communities. That is exactly what Lefor and Steiner want.

The bill is also particularly insidious in its carceral enforcement. Those librarians who seek to promote access to “sexually explicit” information, including information about sexual orientation or gender, must weigh that ethical decision with the possibility of incarceration or an extremely burdensome fine. To be clear: this enforcement scheme is unconscionable and unjustifiable.

We at the Woodhull Freedom foundation vehemently oppose House Bill 1205 and all like book banning efforts. Censorship has no place in our libraries. Carceral enforcement has no place in our libraries. But “sexually explicit” content undoubtedly does have a place in our libraries: library patrons deserve to freely access materials about sex, sexual orientation, and gender.

Free Speech

Photo of books

A photo of a stack of books. (Matt Kryger)

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