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De Facto Censorship in West Virginia

March 6, 2024

This year is already shaping up to be rife with censorship. On February 16, West Virginia joined the list of states mounting attacks to our rights to freely access information through the passage of HB 4654. Currently, West Virginia’s obscenity law exempts schools, public libraries, and museums from being prosecuted under the code. But with HB 4654, the obscenity law will apply to those institutions, allowing for the criminal prosecution of librarians, teachers, and museums for displaying “obscene” material to minors. The “materials” referenced would, obviously, include books; in this sense, is what some call a “de facto book ban.”

There is a lot at stake riding on West Virginia’s incredibly vague definition of “obscene,” which includes material that “an average person, applying community standards, would find depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexually explicit conduct” and material that “a reasonable person would find, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” As West Virginia University P.h.D. candidate Tristan Williams commented, under this definition, “anything could be deemed obscene.” That is, practically anything is subject to potential censorship.

But Zane McNeill reminds us that while this critique is certainly valid, West Virginia seems to have specific types of so-called “obscenity” in mind. For example, LGBTQ+ advocates have noted that HB 4654 has sparked concerns that Republicans’ inaccurate and offensive conflation of LGBTQ material as “pornographic” will render books about LGBTQ+ communities – including texts that make no reference to sex – vulnerable to bans.

We at the Woodhull Freedom Foundation firmly oppose censorship in all of its forms. West Virginia’s move toward restricting our rights to freely access information through imposing criminal penalties upon people is dystopian as it is unconscionable. We join McNeill and LGBTQ+ advocates in condemning HB 4654.

Free Speech
LGBTQ Trans & GNC Youth

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graphic of titles of books that speak to LGBTQ. (patrick-fore)

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