Dems rally to support libraries as Idaho’s ‘harmful materials’ bill takes effect

Demonstrators will gather at Sandpoint library on July 1 to ‘show love’ for local librarians

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Librarians around the state have spent a tense several months preparing for House Bill 710 to take effect. The legislation, passed by lawmakers in April and signed into law soon after by a reluctant Gov. Brad Little, provides a mechanism for filing lawsuits against school or public libraries if minors are able to access materials whose contents are deemed “harmful.”

Critics — including Little — have called it a “library bounty,” providing an incentive for litigation based on a suite of definitions of “obscenity” that many on both sides of the partisan divide criticize as vague and, in many cases, a threat to the First Amendment.

Just how H.B. 710 will play out among library stacks and in courtrooms remains to be seen, but as of Monday, July 1, it will become enforceable in the state. Meanwhile, the Idaho Democratic Party is marking that date with a series of gatherings and demonstrations at libraries in communities throughout Idaho — including Sandpoint.

The East Bonner County Library District’s Sandpoint branch. Photo by Lyndsie Kiebert-Carey.

Karen Mathee is one of the organizers of the local event, which is billed as “Rally for Our Right to Read” and scheduled to begin in the parking lot of the East Bonner County Library District Sandpoint branch at 1 p.m. and continue until 3 p.m.

She told the Reader that the event is intended to be “light and positive and hopeful.”

“I’m hoping that it is a family event — I’m bringing my granddaughter, who’s 6 years old … and I want to explain to her really carefully what this is really about,” said Mathee.  

“I want this to be a family event, a community event, and I want to show our librarians some love because they certainly need it right now,” she added.

As a candidate for Idaho House Seat 1A — running as a Democrat against incumbent Rep. Mark Sauter, R-Dover, in November — Mathee said she also hopes that “lawmakers can get it together and realize that this is unnecessary. I’d like to overturn it; I’d like to put things back the way they were. We had processes in place, we still do — processes where incoming materials were reviewed by library boards, elected and accountable to the people.”

Like other critics of H.B. 710, Mathee pointed to an apparent ideological disconnect inherent in the law.

“That vocal minority talks about not wanting government intervention in their lives, but this is the perfect example of bypassing local decision makers and putting government right in the middle of our lives and our choices as parents and grandparents,” she said.

That’s a similar argument made by her November election opponent, Sauter, who voted against H.B. 710 and said at an April candidates forum ahead of the May primary that “our library system works pretty well. … We believe in local control, so I’m standing with local control — I’ll take the hits.”

Fellow Republican Jim Woodward — who won his primary bid for Idaho Senate in May and will go up against Independent candidate Dan Rose in the November election — also characterized H.B. 710 as government overreach.

“I see it as taking away from a local community,” he said, adding that when lawmakers oppose federal mandates with one hand and take away local control with the other, “I see some level of hypocrisy.”

Likewise, Democratic candidate for Idaho House 1B Kathryn Larson, who will face Republican Cornel Rasor in November, said at the April forum that after meeting with librarians and reviewing the list of books containing supposed harmful materials, she found that none of them even came from the state of Idaho.

“This is very clearly a culture war issue that has been brought to this state,” she said.

Beyond the politics, EBCL Principal Librarian and Interim Director Vanessa Velez has worked since April to understand the law, how it might be applied and how the library can adapt to comply with it.

She underscored that the library is not sponsoring the July 1 event, and granted the Bonner County Democrats’ request as long as they adhered to the EBCL Code of Conduct policy, which states, “Petitioners on library property will not block, hinder or interfere with visitors and staff wishing to enter or exit the buildings, nor intimidate patrons or staff into signing a petition or accepting information.”

Ultimately, she told the Reader in an email, “It’s impossible to predict how H.B. 710 will play out. Since it’s a new law, there is no legal precedent or case law in Idaho, but there is precedent for libraries being sued for violating the First Amendment rights of citizens when items are removed or sequestered, so we are not preemptively moving anything to an area with ‘adult access only,’ as the law requires if an item is deemed ‘harmful to minors.’” 

In the near-term, the library has altered some of its policies, including amending its Collection Development Policy and expanding its Request for Reconsideration form from one to four pages, in order to accommodate more details on Idaho Code 18-1517B, as H.B. 710 will be known after July 1. 

“Long-term, it’s harder to say [how the law will be applied],” Velez said “If the board denies a request for relocation, the decision as to whether or not an item actually qualifies as ‘harmful to minors’ will be made in the court system following Idaho Tort Law proceedings. Or the board can approve the request and relocate items to a locked case — currently housing the Special Collection; rare or fragile materials — or behind the circulation desk so people (adults only) have to ask staff to retrieve these items for them.”

Velez said taking that route “essentially disappears these items,” since most patrons won’t make the effort to ask staff for an item or may feel uncomfortable doing so.

“It creates an additional barrier to access,” she added.

Restricting access is one thing, but Velez said the larger challenge is determining what is meant by certain specific terms in the law — especially “obtain” and “promote,” as they relate to “harmful materials.”

“They don’t even have to check it out, they just have to obtain it,” she told the Reader in a phone interview. “Some libraries are trying to take the stance that it’s a check-out situation … but I don’t read it that way. It’s whether they can see it or grab it from a library shelf.”

Then there’s H.B. 710’s definition of “obscenity,” which among other things contains a host of examples of “sexual conduct,” including, “any act of … homosexuality.”

“The First Amendment doesn’t protect ‘obscenity,’ but the problem is Idaho is making up its own definition,” Velez said, and that has introduced a broad gray area for librarians to navigate with much at stake.

Though H.B. 710 provides $250 in statutory damages for plaintiffs whose challenges are successful, it goes on to open the way for the award of “actual damages and any other relief available by law, including but not limited to injunctive relief sufficient to prevent the defendant school or public library from violating the requirements of this section.”

“That’s the problem — it’s vague, and that is what’s really worrying our libraries because what’s being described as ‘obscene’ can be described in a lot of different ways,” Mathee said, later adding, “It’s a little bit deceptive, because $250 does not seem like a huge amount of money, but when you consider the time and the resources if our libraries have to go to court, there’s no funding for that. There’s no limits. That’s the problem with a lot of these bills that don’t seem so punishing on the surface, but there’s a lot of hidden costs there that add up.”

Velez also underscored that, “it’s important to note that we don’t believe the library has anything in its collections that is harmful to minors. That definition in the law, however, is occasionally vague and contradictory.”

While the July 1 event at the Sandpoint library is intended to show support for libraries and librarians, Mathee recognized that it comes at a time when those institutions and the people who shepherd them are under considerable stress. A recent survey from the Idaho Library Association found 60% of respondents employed in the library profession were thinking of leaving their jobs.

“That’s one of the messages that I want to get across with this rally, is anything we can do to show our libraries and librarians respect and appreciation is welcome,” Mathee said, later adding, “It’s the same with our teachers — we can’t recruit and we can’t retain teachers in our public schools because of disrespect and micromanagement. We’re doing it with our teachers, we’re doing it with our librarians, we’re doing it with our doctors and the result is an exodus out of our state.”

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