Major corporations back book-banning North Dakota legislator
Across the country, school districts are removing books with LGBTQ characters and themes from school libraries. Now, a high-ranking legislator from North Dakota is proposing the inevitable next step: banning these books from public libraries.
The legislation, sponsored by North Dakota House Majority Leader Mike Lefor (R), would prohibit "public libraries from maintaining sexually explicit books." As defined by the legislation, a "sexually explicit" book is a book that contains a "visual depiction" of anything on a list of twelve items. This list includes "human masturbation," "sexual intercourse," and "deviant sexual intercourse." But it also includes concepts that are not necessarily associated with "sexually explicit" behavior, including "sexual identity" and "gender identity."
What does a visual depiction of gender identity look like? Lefor's legislation does not define the term. There is an exception for books with “serious artistic significance” — another term that is left undefined.
Librarians in North Dakota argue that the legislation would require them to remove most books with LGBTQ characters. Christine Kujawa, a public librarian in Bismarck, told the Associated Press her library would be required to remove a children's book with two hamsters on the cover. The hamsters, both males, get married at the end of the book. Under the legislation, Kujawa says, the book would be considered pornography because the book involves gender identity.
The legislation provides that librarians that make prohibited materials available would face "up to 30 days imprisonment" and a $1500 fine. Kujawa says the bill and companion legislation introduced in the North Dakota Senate, "promote censorship and book bans" and have "been drafted with vague and open-ended language, which leaves the door open for unintended consequences." The Senate version of the bill would also prohibit books with written descriptions of "sexually explicit" topics.
"Citizens should have the freedom to choose the information they want to access," Kujawa said. "In the case of minors, parents are responsible for this, not the government."
The House bill states that any “individual who believes a public library is maintaining a book in violation… may submit a written request to the public library to remove the book from its inventory.” The bill says the library “shall remove the book requested for removal within thirty days of receiving the request.” The bill does not include any provision for the librarian to review or reject the request.
“One person can essentially tell an entire community what they have access to at their public library based on their own opinions, moral, or religious viewpoint[s],” the ACLU of North Dakota's Cody Schuler told Popular Information.
The North Dakota Library Association also issued a statement condemning Lefor's bill:
We stand opposed to censorship and any effort to coerce belief, suppress opinion, or punish those whose expression does not conform to what is deemed to be orthodox in history, politics, or belief. The unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to the preservation of a free and democratic society.
Introducing the legislation, Lefor asserted that North Dakota libraries today include books with "disturbing and disgusting" content. In a committee hearing, Lefor said he was motivated to introduce the bill because the book "Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human" was available in public libraries. A Kirkus review describes the book as an "illustrated sexuality and relationship education resource for teens." The review praises it for being "crisp, breezy, effective, and noteworthy in a crowded field for its holistic emphasis on human, emotional aspects of sexuality."
Lefor, however, says, "we have to do everything we can to make sure that [Let's Talk about It] doesn't get into the hands of children." He claimed that, when he grew up, "we didn't need things like this." Lefor also complained that there are books in North Dakota libraries that "assert that gender is fluid."
Lefor argued that a child's exposure to these kinds of books is associated with "addiction, poor self-esteem, devalued intimacy, increasing divorce rates, unprotected sex." He did not provide any evidence to back up these claims.
This legislation is likely unconstitutional. In general, the Supreme Court has ruled that governments are not permitted to remove materials from libraries because they disapprove of the content. The First Amendment protects the right of the public to speak and receive information. There are a few narrow exceptions, like obscenity, but Lefor's bill is much broader.
But the legislation also has a strong chance of approval by the legislature since it is backed by Lefor, the most powerful member of the North Dakota House. Lefor, in turn, is supported by some of the most prominent corporations in the United States.
Corporations that claim to support LGBTQ rights send checks to Lefor
Lefor, who is seeking to ban books that include LGBTQ characters and themes, has received donations from multiple corporations that publicly champion LGBTQ rights.
On June 1, 2022, Johnson & Johnson tweeted that it “takes #pride in supporting the LGBTQIA+ community.” The company’s website states that Johnson & Johnson brands are “committed to championing full equality, inclusivity, care and representation for the LGBTQIA+ community.”
The company also boasts about the “innovative ways Johnson & Johnson proudly supports the LGBTQIA+ community,” including having a company initiative, Care with Pride, that “sponsor[s] and participate[s]” in Pride events and sells products with Pride theme packaging.
On September 15, 2022, however, Johnson & Johnson donated $500 to Lefor. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
On June 6, 2021, AT&T tweeted, “We can #TURNUPTHELOVE for LGBTQ+ youth together. The company stated that it “recognizes, embraces, and stands with LGBTQ+ people,”' while asserting that the company is committed to supporting the “mental health crisis affecting LGBTQ+ youth.”
AT&T also signed a letter in June 2021 organized by the Human Rights Campaign opposing “bills being introduced in state houses across the country that single out LGBTQ individuals - many specifically targeting transgender youth - for exclusion or differential treatment.”
On July 12, 2022, however, AT&T donated $250 to Lefor. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
The bill is also sponsored by North Dakota Representative Vicky Steiner (R). Other corporate donors to Lefor and Steiner since 2022 include: NextEra Energy ($750 to Lefor and $300 to Steiner), ConocoPhillips ($500 to Lefor and $250 to Steiner), and Marathon Petroleum ($1,000 to Steiner). None of these companies responded to a request for comment.