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Bills at the Capitol could make it easier to prosecute librarians over ‘obscene’ books

A person is seen from behind waking past shelves of books in a library.
Sheryl Wong
for KUT
A person browses for books at the Austin Central Library.

The Houston Chronicle found at least five cases where law enforcement was called to investigate possible obscenity in a library book.

Texas is at the forefront of school book challenges and bans, and the entire country has seen an uptick in book challenges in recent years.

An investigation by the Houston Chronicle last summer found more than 2,000 content reviews of challenged school library books across Texas.

It seems that the book battles that flared up at school and public libraries may have lessened somewhat. However, behind the scenes what may be an even more consequential campaign is playing out: prosecuting librarians for making certain books available.

Eric Dexheimer, who works at the Austin Bureau of the Houston Chronicle, said no criminal charges have been filed against a librarian yet, but in at least five instances law enforcement officers have been called.

“There were police called to libraries to review content to see if it met the definition of obscenity and the crime of giving obscenity to minors,” he said.

In two cases cited in Dexheimer’s article — in Kerrville and in Huntsville — the police were called to public libraries; the other three cases occurred at school libraries in Katy, Leander and Granbury. No librarians have been arrested, Dexheimer said, but there are some bills on the horizon that, if passed, would make it easier to prosecute them.

“What’s concerning to librarians and to civil libertarians is that there are some bills pending in the Legislature right now that would make it easier to prosecute,” Dexheimer said. “So what might not have been prosecuted previously could be easier to prosecute after these bills pass, if they do.”

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The Texas Library Association has spoken out against this trend, Dexheimer said.

“They’re horrified, as you can imagine. The specter of librarians being arrested for what is in their collection is terrifying to them,” he said. “The country is one that’s founded on, you know, ideas and access to ideas. So the possibility that freedom might be removed is horrifying.”

Librarians are also worried that they might be held accountable for books that they had nothing to do with, Dexheimer said.

“Most librarians who are hired inherit their collections. So they didn’t necessarily purchase what is in the library or on the shelves, but they might be held criminally accountable for it. That’s one of their fears,” he said. “And the other is just, you know, it’s not a profession that has had to be worried about criminal prosecution before.”

Dexheimer said the efforts to challenge and ban books over the last few years could often be traced back to nationwide organizations with local chapters in Texas communities. In terms of those calling the police, that might sometimes be the case, but not always.

“The Texas Library Association referenced a few nationwide organizations that seem to be behind the efforts to mount campaigns against books that they viewed as inappropriate or pornographic or obscene,” he said. “(For people calling the police) I think it’s probably a combination of both. After speaking to people in those communities, it seems like, you know, some local folks were genuinely outraged. But perhaps that outrage was stoked by organizations that had broader national interests.”

Dexheimer said it’s hard to say whether book challenges will gain more traction or start to fade in the months to come.

“I hesitate to predict the future. And I also hesitate to diminish any genuine concerns that parents have about their kids having access to materials that they don’t want them to,” he said. “That said, libraries have been a place that have to provide materials for a wide range of readers. And that’s particularly true in public libraries, where adults and children both have to have their interests met. Librarians say the materials there should reflect that wide range of interests and content. So if you’re a parent and you don’t want your child to view, that’s kind of a parental responsibility.”

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