Lawmaker pulls own bill repealing obscenity promotion exceptions
Feb. 1 — CHEYENNE — A bill that would have removed education exceptions promoting profanity in Wyoming law was pulled from consideration by its sponsor during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.
Chairman Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, agreed to withhold Senate Act 177 after the request was made by Sen. Cheri Steinmetz, R-Lingle. She said she wants to present the issue of obscene materials in educational spaces as an intermediate theme.
“If that’s okay with the other members of the committee,” Scott said, “we’re going to find that this one might not be quite ready for prime time and needs some work.”
Steinmetz introduced her bill during the committee meeting and said it is a solution to an issue brought to her attention at a meeting at the Little America Hotel and Resort in Cheyenne last year. The event she was referring to was a press conference by former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder, who was hoping to address the sexualization of children in public schools.
Steinmetz said parents came from across the state, including her district, to express concern about “some issues that have been occurring in our public libraries.”
SF 177 was seen as a way to give parents a better sense of what materials are available in libraries and schools across the state. Steinmetz added that while she understands why there are exceptions for law enforcement and judicial work, she doesn’t think it’s appropriate for teachers and librarians to bring material that is unsuitable for children.
“That’s the reason for this simple calculation,” she said. “I realize it’s not an easy problem.”
If its legislation had been passed by the Wyoming Legislature, any person who produces, reproduces, possesses, or distributes obscene material in the course of “honest activities in, or in the course of the employment of, a school, college, university, museum, or public library would be an organization “would have been prosecuted.
The offense for such a crime was a fine of up to $1,000, a year in prison, or both for promoting obscenity towards an adult; Penalties could be increased if a minor was involved. Each violation could have resulted in a fine of up to $6,000, a year in prison, or both.
But the definition of obscene material is less clear than the punishment. It is divided into three parts under current Wyoming law because any material that appears to the average person to have a morbid or excessive interest in sexual matters depicts or describes sexual content in an offensive manner, or “taken as a whole, deems it serious literature lacks artistic, political or scientific value.”
Sheridan College President Walter Tribley said he was concerned about others’ judgment of whether a material had value and any misinterpretations that could lead to criminal prosecution of educators. He also stressed that they teach minors, which results in a heavier sentence.
From courses like criminal justice, which address sex crimes and inappropriate use of pornography, to human anatomy and conditions of the human condition, Tribley said teachers need the freedom to help their students explore challenging topics with guidance and control .
“Teachers have a great responsibility. And I believe we have appropriate controls and counterbalances to allow parents and others to exercise and soften or modify their voice, and in some cases even direct curriculum decisions by the local K-12,” he said. “Universities are, by definition, marketplaces for ideas. They need to bring the world to their students.”
He was joined by representatives from the Wyoming Education Association, librarians and parents who opposed the law and highlighted the dangers of the legislation. Some also testified to support local scrutiny and handling of concerns in their own communities rather than state intervention.
“This law is damaging the unity of our small communities by creating fear,” said Rach Crocker, director of the Albany County Public Library. “And it limits our ability to get our job done by wasting time and resources.”
Natrona County Library director Lisa Scroggins swooped down from Casper to testify because Scott is not allowing long-distance testimony in the Senate Education Committee in this general session. One of the consequences she expected if SF 177 were passed was a backlog in the court system as librarians would be arrested for their work.
“We already know that ‘obscene’ can only be determined by a judge or a jury,” Scroggins said. “As mentioned, even the Supreme Court has a tough job. And we’re talking obscene, not pornography.”
“And when this is over, I see a future where valuable public funds are diverted from buying materials that our community wants and needs … to defending employees for simply doing their jobs.” Not to mention the cost of defending libraries against lawsuits from citizens denied access to constitutionally protected information and materials.”
The exception currently applies to museums as well, as Wyoming Arts Alliance representative Andrew Schneider pointed out. He said the Colorado-Wyoming Association of Museums opposed the bill and urged lawmakers not to remove protections for their workers.
“It sends a message to these workers that they should leave Wyoming,” he said. “We have dozens of museums across the state doing great work for our communities every day. We are incredibly valued in our communities. And it’s hard enough for us to attract and retain a skilled, skilled, and exceptional workforce. And that hurts more than helps us.”
Schneider made the final public statement, and there were no speakers supporting the bill. Steinmetz was quick to call for the law to be halted, but her bill isn’t the only one addressing the issue.
Rep. Jeanette Ward, R-Casper, has a bill that will be heard in the House Revenue Committee on Thursday. House Bill 87 would repeal the same section that was in Steinmetz’s bill, and it changes the definition of child pornography in Wyoming law. Both “cartoon” and “drawing” are added, as is “any other form of depiction of sexual conduct.”
Jasmine Hall is the government reporter for the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. She can be reached by email at [email protected] or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.