North Dakota’s governor vetoed a bill Wednesday that would have required librarians under threat of criminal penalty to screen sexually explicit materials from children, but signed another barring explicit materials from the children’s sections of local and school libraries.
The Senate voted 33-14 to override Republican Gov. Doug Burgum’s veto hours later, though a similar House vote would be needed to make a veto override successful. The House had passed the bill on a 54-38 vote last week, several votes shy of a veto-proof majority.
“Protecting children from explicit sexual material is common sense,” Burgum said in a statement explaining why he signed one of the bills into law.
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But he said the bill he vetoed would have created “an enormous burden” on hundreds of public libraries by imposing — under the threat of criminal prosecution — an expensive requirement that libraries review materials that have already been screened for age appropriateness. His statement said it would cost the state $300,000 initially to conduct such screening and $150,000 per year thereafter.
“This bill is unnecessary, vague, and will not only cause immediate hardship to our schools and libraries, but also opens the door to costly, and unnecessary litigation,” library coordinator Misti Frink had said in testimony against the bill this month. “Robust checks and balances are already in place for print and digital resource selections.”
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks at the state Capitol, on April 10, 2020, in Bismarck, North Dakota. Burgum vetoed a bill on April 26, 2023, that would have criminalized librarians for willfully displaying sexually explicit materials and signed a bill that prohibits those materials in children’s sections of libraries. (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune via AP, File)
Republican Sen. Janne Myrdal, of Edinburg, spoke on the Senate floor in urging her colleagues to override the governor’s veto, saying exposure to sexually explicit material “is devastating for young people’s brains and lives.”
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“We deal with millions of dollars here. $150,000 is like a drop in the bucket to protect our children,” Myrdal said.
Language in the vetoed bill said prosecutors could charge a person with a class B misdemeanor — up to 30 days in prison and $1,500 in fines — for willfully displaying sexually explicit material at newsstands or any other business establishment visited by minors. It said this would not include colleges, universities, museums or art galleries but would include public libraries and public school libraries, among some other places.
Opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, have said the now-vetoed bill would promote government censorship and violate First Amendment rights to say, think, read and write whatever one wants without fear of government retaliation.
Across the country, attempted book bans and restrictions on libraries have surged, setting a record in 2022, according to a recent report by the American Library Association.
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Some books have been targeted by liberals citing racist language — notably Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” — according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who directs the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
But the vast majority of complaints have come from conservatives, directed at works with LGBTQIA+ or racial themes, Caldwell-Stone has said.
Bills to restrict books have been proposed or passed in Arizona, Iowa, Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Florida and other states.