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Bill to arrest librarians filed for 2025 session

A bill that could have led to the arrest of librarians narrowly missed becoming law last session, but sponsors have already filed a follow-up.

Gavel, books and handcuffs
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A House bill that could have led to the arrest of librarians narrowly missed becoming law last session, but sponsors have already filed a follow-up for the session that begins next February.

House Bill 4 is primarily sponsored by Rep. Arnold Mooney, R-Indian Springs, but has a total of 49 co-sponsors including House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville; House Majority Leader Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle; and House Speaker Pro Temper Chris Pringle, R-Mobile.

With nearly half the House signed on as co-sponsors and the bill filed more than six months in advance, it appears the bill is poised for smooth sailing through the lower body in the next session. 

The bill is facially similar to its predecessor, but has been streamlined to better detail the procedure for charging librarians with a crime.

“Fifty Alabama lawmakers want to throw Alabama librarians in jail for daring to shelve books that challenge their worldviews,” said Read Freely Alabama leadership in a statement Tuesday. “Ripped straight out of the Project 2025 playbook, HB4 will criminalize librarians for vaguely-defined ‘obscene’ literature that targets LGBTQ and racial justice content. Read Freely Alabama members will continue to defend all our libraries against these unconstitutional, nationally-coordinated attacks from extremists. Libraries are nonpartisan spaces where everyone can find their stories represented in all sections; we will continue to ensure it stays that way.”

Although books featuring racial content and homosexual orientation have been challenged or removed in some libraries across the state over the past year, this bill does not mention racial issues or even sexual orientation in its language.

It does, however, include “gender-oriented conduct” in its new definition of sexual conduct.

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What the bill does

The bill redefines “harmful to minors” by redefining the term “sexual conduct” and sets out a procedure that would allow criminal charges to be brought against librarians if material “harmful to minors” is shelved in sections for minors.

The current definition of what is “harmful to minors” is a three-part test. To be considered harmful to minors, the material in question must meet all three standards below (emphasis added by APR):

  • The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the material, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest of minors; and.
  • The material depicts or describes sexual conduct, breast nudity, or genital nudity, in a way which is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to what is suitable for minors; and.
  • A reasonable person would find that the material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

Despite technical changes, that part of the law remains the same in HB4. The change in the definition comes by a change to the definition of the term “sexual conduct.”

Under current law, sexual conduct is defined as:

  • Any act of sexual intercourse, masturbation, urination, defecation, lewd exhibition of the genitals, sadomasochistic abuse, bestiality, or the fondling of the sex organs of animals; or
  • Any other physical contact with a person’s unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or the breast or breasts of a female, whether alone or between members of the same or opposite sex or between a human and an animal, in an act of sexual stimulation, gratification, or perversion.

Those two sections remain substantially unchanged; however, the bill adds a brand new third section that states:

  • In K-12 public schools or public libraries where minors are expected and known to be present without parental presence or consent, any sexual or gender-oriented conduct, presentation, or activity that knowingly exposes a minor to a person who is dressed in sexually revealing, exaggerated, or provocative clothing or costumes, who is stripping, or who is engaged in lewd or lascivious dancing.

Past comments from the bill’s sponsors indicate this section is meant to envelop “drag queen story hours” and library books dealing with transgender content. Despite including the terminology of “gender-oriented conduct, presentation or activity” it is unclear how that language would apply when taking into account the full scope of the definition of “harmful to minors.” There is no definition provided for gender-oriented conduct. The definition is also circular in part, including the term “sexual conduct” within the definition of “sexual conduct.”

The bill now clearly defines the process for bringing a charge against a public library. 

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Any person who is a resident of the county or municipality where a public library is located who believes that material is present or conduct is occurring at the public library that violates this division may provide written notice by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the director of the library and at least one member of the library’s board which reasonably identifies the specific material or conduct.

The process is similar for K-12 schools, but the complaint must be brought by a parent or guardian of a student.

Once a library receives notice of a potential violation, it will have 15 days to either:

  • Move material identified in the notice that violates this division to an age-restricted area of the library.
  • Remove material in the notice that violates this division from the library.
  • Cease conduct in the notice that violates the division.
  • Make an official determination that the material or conduct does not violate this division and take no further action.

The library must notify the complainant of its action. If the public or K-12 library decides to take no action, the complainant can then take the matter to law enforcement.

The bill does not include a section from last session that could have made retail stores a public nuisance for distributing material harmful to minors. APR noted the potential impact on retail stores, and sources told APR the bill would be amended to protect retail stores.

The bill does not bring the matter before district attorneys, which had been heavily discussed last session as a factor to curb frivolous prosecution. Because the charge is a misdemeanor, it would fall in municipal court instead of being handled by district attorneys.

Another change is that the bill creates no schedule of misdemeanors as set out in last year’s legislation. The previous legislation allowed a Class C misdemeanor for a first violation, working up to a Class A misdemeanor. Current law does not classify the level of misdemeanor, but sets a fine of up to $10,000 and one year in jail for distributing material “harmful to minors” to minors.

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History of the bill

This will be the third year that the core bill has appeared in the Legislature. Originally designed as a bill to ban drag performances in public spaces—Stadthagen referred to it as the “drag queen bill” as recently as last weaken an interview on the Yafee program—it has since morphed to primarily target librarians. 

The plan to rework the bill to target library materials came as a concoction of Clean Up Alabama, a joint effort between Eagle Forum and the Prattville group Clean Up Prattville.  In an email recounting the organization’s Aug. 2023 meeting, the group laid out three statewide legislative goals—two of which are combined in this single bill and work in tandem to create a threat of misdemeanors for librarians who have transgender-oriented books on the shelves for minors under 18.

The first goal is to remove the criminal exemption for libraries and librarians for the distribution of content that is obscene or harmful to minors. Some proponents of the bill have emphasized the removal of the exemption for “obscene” material rather than what is “harmful to minors.” But obscenity is a tougher standard than even pornography, and no evidence has been provided of Alabama libraries distributing obscene content.

Considering the second goal of Clean Up Alabama, it is clear the real objective is to clear the way for criminal charges for libraries that are alleged to distribute material harmful to minors.

The objective is in line with Project 2025, a policy playbook by the influential conservative nonprofit Heritage Foundation. In the foreword of the 900-page plan, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts conflates pornography and “transgender ideology” and calls for librarians to be registered as sex offenders for distributing such materials.

Pornography, manifested today in the omnipresent propagation of transgender ideology and sexualization of children, for instance, is not a political Gordian knot inextricably binding up disparate claims about free speech, property rights, sexual liberation, and child welfare,” Roberts wrote. “It has no claim to First Amendment protection … Educators and public librarians who purvey it should be classed as registered sex offenders.”

Eagle Forum and Moms for Liberty have been heavily involved in promoting and designing the bill in Alabama. Both groups are coalition partners on Project 2025. 1819 News has pushed the narrative and the president of the Alabama Center for Law and Liberty wrote policies in Prattville to remove LGBTQ content from the shelves. Those two organizations were spawned by the Alabama Policy Institute, which is another coalition partner on Project 2025.

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The bill is sponsored by representatives Mooney, Ledbetter, Stadthagen, Pringle, Kiel, Kirkland, Colvin, Estes, Moore (P), Brinyark, Underwood, Pettus, DuBose, Harrison, Butler, Robertson, Hulsey, Yarbrough, Shaw, Paschal, Lipscomb, Hurst, Marques, Sorrells, Brown, Smith, Wood (D), Whorton, Rehm, Oliver, Treadaway, Bolton, Lamb, Stubbs, Baker, Hammett, Lomax, Rigsby, Gidley, Carns, Stringer, Bedsole, Woods, Sells, Holk-Jones, Fidler, Starnes, Standridge, Fincher,  and Givens.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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