During the past year, criticism over the content of certain books in school and public libraries has become an increasingly dominant aspect of broader discussions about education in Montana and in the nation. That contention has factored heavily in races for school board posts and fueled disputes between parents and school officials. 

On Thursday, the debate landed before lawmakers on the Montana Legislature’s House Judiciary Committee as they heard public testimony on a proposal to toughen state obscenity laws. Supporters characterized the measure as a necessary safeguard to protect children from exposure to inappropriate or pornographic material in public schools and libraries. Opponents cast it as a significant step in the direction of government censorship, one that threatens to criminalize teachers and librarians and erode the First Amendment rights of Montana citizens.

State law currently forbids the “public display or dissemination” of obscene material to minors, namely in commercial spaces and at newstands, but carves out exemptions for public school, library and museum employees, provided the material meets locally approved policies. House Bill 234 seeks to remove those exemptions. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, said that the change would reduce the amount of obscene materials publicly available and criminally penalize individuals who make them accessible to young Montanans.

“I have 10 grandsons and one granddaughter, and I want them to grow up in a society that allows them to be children,” Phalen told the committee.

State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, a Republican, rose as an early proponent of HB 234, issuing a short statement that “there should never be — ever be — obscene material or pornographic instruction in any of our public schools.” Jeff Laszloffy, testifying on behalf of the Montana Family Foundation, said the bill was about re-establishing faith in public education that was lost during the COVID-19 pandemic and “restoring the trust and respect between parents and schools.”

The bulk of the supporting testimony for HB 234 came from parents and from in-state leaders of the self-styled parental rights movement. One parent, Heather Higgs, claimed that a high school library in Bozeman contains numerous titles identified by the Texas Education Agency as obscene and that books with “overt sexual content” in school libraries is “bankrupting the morality and decency of our youth.” Alba Pimentel, president of the Yellowstone chapter of the organization Moms for Liberty, criticized a Billings School District letter informing parents about sexual education materials as lacking detail about what those materials were or where they could be found.

“If the explicit content keeps arising in our schools, I am afraid it is not a place where my children would belong,” Pimentel said. “My family is respectful, kind and accepting of others. We ask that our children’s innocence is protected.”

Pimentel was among the invited speakers earlier this month to a “celebration of parents” in the Capitol Rotunda organized by Arntzen. Moms for Liberty has played a prominent role in local efforts across the country to remove specific titles from public school libraries. The books most often singled out predominantly feature LGBTQ characters and themes, prompting public rebukes and legal pushback by the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups.

Cheryl Tusken, state director of the nonprofit Parents’ Rights in Action, was the sole proponent of HB 234 to address that issue head-on. Testifying via Zoom, Tusken predicted that lawmakers would likely hear from opponents of the bill that this was “an LGBT issue,” acknowledging that one of the titles to come under fire in the past year is the memoir “Gender Queer.”

“Please don’t let them shift it that way, that we are anti-LGBT,” Tusken said. “This is about the purity of our children’s minds and hearts.”

Two of the bill’s opponents countered Tusken’s assertion. Amy Zanoni of Livingston stated that the push for HB 234 and similar state-level legislation elsewhere in the country is directly tied to “anti-LGBTQ sentiment.” Passing such a law, Zanoni added, will “cause serious harm to LGBTQ people and will create a climate of fear in our communities.” In speaking on behalf of the city of Bozeman, SK Rossi also disagreed with the attempt to divorce the discussion from LGBTQ issues.

“Generally, these censorship bills have popped up across the country in response to the availability of materials and books that support LGBTQ youth, especially trans youth,” Rossi said. “Marginalizing and kind of intimidating LGBTQ youth and cutting them off from information that might make them feel more comfortable or accepted is a form of bullying.”

Among the most dominant themes running through opponent testimony was the potential impact to teachers, librarians and museum staff. Sam Forstag, testifying for the Montana Library Association, pointed out that the bill would subject librarians to criminal penalties if they violate the law — a fine of $500 or up to six months in jail, according to existing statute. Forstag and other opponents predicted that such a change would stoke fear among public school, library and museum employees, and force those institutions to decide between defending staff against legal challenges at the cost of taxpayer dollars or culling their collections of anything that might be perceived as obscene.

“What this does is open up individuals to liability, thereby increasing the liability coverage that a school or museum would need to cover to hold in order to protect their employees from civil action,” said Sarah Piper, representing the Montana Federation of Public Employees. “People across the political spectrum trust their librarians and educators and with good reasons. These proposed changes to criminal obscenity laws will target librarians and school teachers in highly political and troubling ways, which is especially worrying during our current teacher shortage.”

The testimony in opposition took several overt turns into the topic of religious faith, as two individuals identifying themselves as conservative Christians shared their reservations about HB 234. Sheila Elwin of Livingston questioned whether, under the state’s definition of obscenity, the Bible might be removed from library shelves due to scenes of rape, incest and the “explicit poetry in Song of Solomon.” Her concern was echoed by Jack Longbine, who introduced himself to lawmakers as an ordained conservative Baptist minister.

“The definition [of obscenity] is too obscure, and the problem is different people have different definitions of it,” Longbine said. “When I talk to people I know within and without my church, the definition of what is obscene is very broad.”

Later, in response to questioning from Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade about whether he believed a rape described in the Book of Deuteronomy would meet the state’s definition of obscenity, Longbine further refined his issues with HB 234. In addition to undermining his credibility among young people who may perceive such changes as censorship, Longbine said, the bill “abdicates parental authority to a government institution that is not going to help our society at all. It’s going to close doors, it’s going to close communication, it’s going to create distrust.”

Other lawmakers took turns questioning the testimony of various opponents, as well as the specific policies in place at public libraries governing book selection and youth access. Susan McIntyre, director of the Great Falls Public Library, fielded the lion’s share of the latter inquiries, explaining how her institution catalogs books based on an intended audience’s age and seeks to maintain a collection that reflects the diversity of the local community. Before the committee closed its hearing, however, the discussion took one more dive into the topic of religion, with Rep. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, reading the aforementioned passage from Deuteronomy in full.

“Are you in agreement,” he asked the bill’s sponsor, Phalen, “that that is a despicable event, but it is not obscene in its nature?”

“That is correct,” Phalen replied. “Those people were walking in sin, so when sin abounds, this is the kind of act you get.”

The committee did not vote Thursday on whether to advance HB 234 to the House floor.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...