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Proposed Ohio bill would charge teachers, librarians with felonies for ‘pandering obscenity’

Susan Tebben, Ohio Capital Journal,

A Republican-led bill just introduced in the Ohio House would charge teachers and librarians with a felony offense for distributing material deemed “obscene.”

The problem is, the bill does not explain what materials would be considered obscene, despite laying a fifth-degree felony on the feet of teachers and “public school librarians” who may possess or share such material.

State Rep. Adam Mathews, R-Lebanon, put forth House Bill 556 last week, a bill that would “create criminal liability for certain teachers and librarians for the offense of pandering obscenity,” according to the language of the bill.

Librarian, in this sense, is defined as “a librarian employed by a school district, other public school … or chartered nonpublic school and a librarian employed in a school district public library.”

Teachers and school district librarians would be barred from creating, reproducing, publishing, promoting or advertising “obscene material.” They are also prohibited from creating, directing or producing “an obscene performance,” the bill states.

But what falls under “obscenity” is not clear from the initial language of HB 556, which has yet to receive committee consideration in the House. The word “obscenity” only appears three times in the six-page bill: in the title of the proposed legislation and twice referring to the title of the criminal offense.

“Obscene” shows up eight times in the bill, but only accompanying “material,” “performance,” “articles” and in a clause about giving notice about “the character of the material or a performance.”

HB 556 aims to amend existing statutes in the Ohio Revised Code, and pulls exact language from those statutes — for pandering obscenity and one explaining legal “presumptions in obscenity cases” — but neither of those statutes lay out what is considered obscenity either.

It’s that lack of clarity that is giving teachers and library groups hesitation on the bill.

The Ohio Education Association said it is still reviewing HB 556, and Ohio Federation of Teachers president Melissa Cropper said the group has not taken a position on the bill, but she is “concerned with the vagueness of the bill and the ability for it to be weaponized by bad faith actors who are focused on attacking public schools and libraries, not on protecting children.”

“We also question whether there is need for this new bill or if existing laws can address the concerns behind HB 556,” Cropper said in a statement. “We plan to discuss this bill and these concerns with legislators and with our members.”

Questions beyond the motivations of the bill are still coming up as well, including whether or not “school district public libraries” can include the libraries of a community that are also classified as school district libraries.

The Ohio Library Council’s executive director, Michelle Francis, said the group does “have concerns with the legislation.”

“We reached out to the sponsor and we look forward to meeting with him soon,” Francis told the Capital Journal.

The bill includes an “affirmative defense,” meaning if the person accused of pandering obscenity can prove the material or performance was “for a bona fide medical, scientific, religious, governmental, judicial or other proper purpose,” they can use that as a defense against the charge. The word “educational” was struck from the language in the proposal as reasoning for an affirmative defense.

As part of the affirmative defense, the material must also have been given by or to a “physician, psychologist, sociologist, scientist, health or biology teacher, faculty member, person pursuing bona fide studies or research, librarian other than a school librarian, member of the clergy, prosecutor, judge or other person having a proper interest in the material or performance.”

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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