Randy Yohe Published

Legislative Public Hearing Set For Obscenity Bill

Bald man in mustard colored suit talking with woman
Del. Brandon Steele is HB 4654 lead sponsor.
Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography

The legislature’s first public hearing of 2024 will be Wednesday morning regarding public facilities, minors and obscene material. 

The public hearing comes before House Bill 4654 goes to the Judiciary Committee for debate. The proposed legislation would remove schools, public libraries and museums from the list of exemptions from criminal liability relating to distribution and display to minors obscene material.

The bill sponsor, Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said obscenity concerns from several school and public librarians in his Beckley area community prompted the bill drafting. 

“They’ve talked to me about some of the materials that are coming in to the libraries these days,” Steele said. “The law that we have on the books was designed, you know, back in the 70s, and 80s, where the topic was more along the lines of sex education and things like that, things that were a little more innocuous. What our librarians that are talking to me are seeing that coming in, is material that is outright pornography.” 

Del. Joey Garcia, D-Marion, is among the delegates opposing the bill who call it an attempt to ban books.  

It’s a flat-out book ban bill,” Garcia said. “It’s really weaponizing the government, weaponizing criminal law to attack professionals that are librarians that are educators in our schools that are in museums with respect to obscenity, and that’s just such a very vague standard right now. This would make criminal prosecution possible, which is going to chill free speech.”

Steele said there’s no book ban language in the bill.

I wouldn’t call it a book ban,” Steele said. “I will call it a pornography ban on showing pornography to children. If people want to call that a book ban, that’s their business.” 

Garcia said the political desires of those supporting the bill are painting with broad brush strokes.

“It affects issues of racism. It affects issues of history, it can even affect the Bible,” Garcia said. “I was looking at banned books that have happened from similar bills across the United States. They banned a book on Roberto Clemente, on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, that’s what’s on some banned lists. And that’s what individuals do. They don’t like something that’s in the library. They want to try to make somebody fear that they’re going to be criminally prosecuted. And that’s not right.”

State code defines obscene in part as something that the average adult would find sexually explicit in an offensive way or something that appeals to a prurient interest. Prurient means an excessive interest in sexual matters.

Del. Steele gave his personal definition of obscenity.

“What did Justice Holmes say,” Steele said. “It’s hard to write down the definition, but you know it when you see it.”

That quote was actually from Justice Potter Stewart. The public hearing on House Bill 4654 is 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.