Montana bill banning obscene material receives community support despite criticism from LGBT advocates, libraries

A bill prohibiting obscene materials for children in schools and libraries had its first hearing in the Montana State Legislature last week.

Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, led the sponsors of HB 234, which would extend the state’s current prohibition of the “public display or dissemination of obscene material to minors” to public schools and libraries by removing certain exemptions in current state law.

“By doing this not only will it reduce the amount of obscene material shown in public schools, libraries and museums, but it will also penalize these entities in violation of this bill,” said Phalen.

If the bill passes, some exceptions will remain, including material for the educational purposes of a college or university or – in the case of nudity – material for scientific or medical purposes.

Critics of the bill have expressed concern about the ambiguity of “obscenity.” 

“The definition is too obscure, and the problem is different people have different definitions of it,” said Jack Longbine, a minister and trustee for the Livingston-Park County Public Library board, who worries the Bible could be construed as obscene under the law and that it would alienate the younger generation. 

Others questioned whether images like Michelangelo’s David or nude Holocaust victims would also be restricted. 

However, Montana’s legal definition of obscenity mirrors the Supreme Court’s, which defines obscene material as prurient (excessively interested in sexual matters), lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value, and depicting sexual matters in an offensive way.  

Materials can thus contain some sexual content without being legally obscene. 

Nonetheless, some perceived the bill as targeting LGBT-themed books. 

“I do appreciate that one of the proponents mentioned the book Gender Queer, and made the argument that this is not about LGBTQ issues,” said S.K. Rossi, a Montana resident. “I tend to disagree.” 

Gender Queer is a graphic novel about the author’s struggle with gender identity and sexual orientation. The book, found in many school libraries, has been widely disputed as inappropriate for children due to its depictions of sexual intercourse, masturbation and pedophilia.  

Despite some objections, HB 234 has also received community support. 

“Sexualized materials contribute to the victimization and abuse of children,” said Heather Higgs, a Montana resident and public-school parent.  

Jeff Laszloffy, president of the Montana Family Foundation, said the bill was “about restoring trust and respect between schools and parents.”  

It is also supported by the State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen.