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Actions speak louder than words: a lesson in obscenity

Last night, the Nebraska legislature debated a controversial bill, LB441, which would criminalize school librarians for having items in the library that anyone might deem obscene, despite a clear legal definition of that word, and despite the fact that schools are already held to obscenity laws. This important legal discussion was interrupted by an inappropriate and demeaning speech, (dis)courtesy of Senator Halloran (calling it a speech is generous and calling it a courtesy is disingenuous). Let’s recap what happened. 

Senator DeBoer most accurately described what Senator Albrecht seems to want to do with this bill, but isn’t actually accomplishing: some things in literature are “spicy“ and some things are “obscene,” and some people want to move some things from the “spicy“ category into the “obscene“ category. Senator Albrecht wants the local extremists and hate group members to be able to (re)define precisely those categories and, consequently, to make a decision for everyone else about which books they consider too “spicy” for others to read. However that’s not what this bill as written will do.

Instead, this bill as it is currently written would literally allow criminal charges against school librarians for items contained in the collection that other people might not like. Many senators brought up good points that show the problematic legal nature of the bill, which included questions such as

  • Whose definition of obscenity would be used, since such a definition is necessarily pretty subjective?
  • What about a new librarian who has just started at the school and did not purchase the books that are already on the shelves – is that librarian still criminally responsible for the collection that predates them?
  • What about schools that don’t have a librarian (yes, sadly they exist) – who will be legally responsible for the book collection?
  • Criminal charges can affect someone’s teaching license and prevent them from teaching in a public school capacity – do we really want to prevent experienced teachers from teaching at public schools over a difference in opinion about what book is available to (completely voluntarily) check out at the library? *Editors’ note: LB441 does not address curriculum, and as such, does not address books that are read and/or taught as part of the class.
  • Aren’t we going through a teacher shortage? If we criminalize teacher librarians, how will this possibly help the situation?
  • How does criminalizing a teacher fix your issues with the library collection?
  • Is a librarian supposed to read every single book in a library, and do so prior to their date of employment, if they are going to be held liable for the library’s content from that date on? How is that possible?

Several senators who, unlike Senator Albrecht, are actual lawyers brought up these and many other legal concerns with the wording of the bill. Senator Albrecht had no answers to most of these questions, presumably because she really doesn’t know what this bill would do and what the practical and legal headaches are it would present to schools, administrators, librarians, prosecutors, and defenders alike.

One of our writers was observing the debate from the gallery, and is thus able to provide this personal account of what happened next. At this late-hour discussion, Senators Hunt, Dungan and both Cavanaughs, were participating on the floor. Several senators in support of the bill kept complaining about how very difficult it had been to listen during the initial committee hearing last year, when *invited* testifiers read many different texts aloud for hours on end and out of context. It is prudent here to again note that these testifiers were specifically *invited* to the committee by the introducer and supporters of this bill, so as to create drama, make people uncomfortable, and create confusion about what content was presented to what age group of kids. For example, there were a lot of claims that these books are required reading in schools…somewhere…but without any proof or even specifics, and despite the fact that no books in LIBRARIES are required reading and, as we noted before, this bill is about LIBRARIES, not curriculum. Boo-hoo-cry us a river about how appalled you were by the “obscene” content you hand-picked testifiers to provide, regardless of its context in the books in which those words appear.

Finally, it seemed as if Senator Halloran decided he needed some attention, and so he read aloud an excerpt from Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky, in which the author graphically depicts her sexual assault during college. While selectively reading only the harshest and most explicit line from that particular passage, Senator Halloran repeatedly and seamlessly inserted Senator Cavanaugh’s name into the recitation – including in such a way that Senator Halloran appeared to direct Senator Cavanaugh to perform a sexual act on him. Reader, let us attest to the fact that you could have heard a pin drop in the chamber. The state of appall among all those present was palpable. When Senator Machaela Cavanaugh finally had a chance to respond at the mic, she thoroughly excoriated Halloran, and pointed out how wildly inappropriate such indecorous demeanor was and how damaging it was for anyone in that room or anyone listening who had experienced sexual assault. Senator Cavanaugh was in tears, and so was our writer who was there listening.

Senator Steve Halloran receiving a fake award from members of Hitler-quoting hate group Nebraskans for Founders Values

Senator Halloran’s abusive performance was so shocking and out of order, that the legislature quickly decided to prematurely end debate for the night and reconvene in the morning. 

As expected, this morning started off with a bang. Via email last night and in person this morning, Senator Halloran has given constituents a number of conflicting excuses for what he did, including claiming that he was addressing Senator Machaela Cavanaugh’s brother, Senator JOHN Cavanaugh – as if that were any better? Halloran also makes the nonsensical and absurd claim that this book – the memoir of a woman describes her struggles in surviving a violent sexual assault and it’s aftermath – is a how-to rape manual. Yes, dear reader, he really said that. Today, Senator Halloran gave a half-hearted conditional apology on the floor. And rather than distance herself from Senator Halloran’s abusive and threatening behavior toward women in general and Senator Cavanaugh in particular, Senator Albrecht continues to exploit the situation by suggesting that last night’s repulsive display is attributable to the words used in Sebold’s book rather than solely the result of Senator Halloran’s despicable behavior.

A few senators have called for Halloran to resign. Among them, somewhat surprisingly, was Senator Slama, who pointed out that there was no other job in the world in which Halloran could publicly insert his colleague’s name into a rape story, and then think he would keep his job. Senator Von Gillern also criticized Halloran and demanded that he do better and make a real apology.

While this bill’s debate has been an unsurprising opportunity to remind us, once again, what a real asshole Senator Halloran is, the real problem is that LB441 is coming to a vote soon. Yet, other than what this bill’s supporters would like us to believe, there is no need to criminalize librarians. Because obscenity laws are already on the books, there is no obscenity in school libraries. Also, students are not required to read library books. And, even further, school districts already have “reconsideration policies“ for anyone who has concerns about a book in a school. Librarians are trained in selection methods and how to curate a thoughtful and appropriate collection for their individual school and learners, and we should leave this job to the experts rather than a bunch of legislators trying to write laws they don’t understand themselves.