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Midland County adopts new policy for “obscene” books, but it might not do what officials claim it will

Midland County Centennial Library is one of two public libraries that serves the Midland community.
Midland County Website
Midland County Centennial Library is one of two public libraries that serves the Midland community.

At their regular meeting this week, Midland County commissioners tried to answer a question that has ignited fiery debates, legislation and lawsuits: what makes a book obscene?

Midland County commissioners tried to nail down their definition of obscene with a new library policy approved on Monday. The new policy directs staff to move books considered offensive from the children’s section to the adult section at local libraries.

While some officials believe the new policy is a step forward, others warned commissioners that the policy may do little to nothing at all.

Commissioner Dianne Anderson, who has spearheaded recent efforts to reform Midland County libraries, brought the proposal forward. She said, “We need to do the right thing. We need to get these filthy books out of our children’s section.”

The new policy applies the Texas Penal Code’s definitions of “obscene” and “harmful material” to books found at local libraries. The specific section of the penal code referenced in the policy deals with public indecency.

With the adoption of the state’s definitions, any book in Midland libraries detailing “sexual intercourse” or topics that indulge in a “prurient interest in sex” should be considered obscene.

“It is not difficult to see which books are vulgar, obscene, have sexual connotations and are just wrong for our children, for our minors to be exposed to,” Anderson said on Monday. “We’re not asking for them to be banned, we're asking for them to be removed from the children's section.”

The county’s decision is part of an ongoing effort in recent years across Texas to crack down on books focusing on sex, LGBTQ themes and race. In recent years, a state lawmaker called for an investigation into 850 titles that could “make students feel discomfort” and just this year lawmakers approved a bill banning “sexually-explicit” books allowed in school libraries.

In Midland, locals began their effort to cull local libraries earlier this year. In the spring, residents turned out to voice concerns to county commissioners about books found in public libraries — pushing officials to launch a process to reevaluate library policies.

In June, Marfa Public Radio obtained a list of books that library patrons had requested to be removed or recategorized. At that time, 38 titles had been flagged for library staff to review — the majority of which were shelved in the young adult section, which contains books considered appropriate for 13 to 17 year olds.

Books that made the list included: “Gender Queer”, “Call Me By Your Name”, “Sex: An Uncensored Guide to Your Body, Sex, and Safety” and “Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

During Monday’s meeting, Midland County Judge Terry Johnson defended the county’s efforts.

“I don’t think we’re here trying to ban a book,” he said. “You can have them in your library just put them over where only the adults can look at them.”

However, Midland County Library Director Debbie Garza pointed out the new standard the commissioners were adopting was not as cut and dry as they believed. “By the definition of the Texas Penal Code,” she said, “we don’t have obscene books in the children’s section. I don’t believe we even have obscene books in the library.”

Even though the definitions adopted by the commissioners outline what material should be considered obscene or harmful to children, they also have huge caveats.

The penal code’s definition of obscene states that for any material — books or otherwise — to be considered criminally obscene, it must as a whole “lack serious literary, artistic, political, and scientific value.”

Similarly, the criminal standard for material harmful to children says a work only qualifies as such, if it “is utterly without redeeming social value for minors.”

Garza said, “[The law] speaks to the work as a whole, the entire work, not just sections of the work, not just one panel or one illustration or a phrase or a word.”

Midland County Attorney Russell Malm backed up Garza’s assertion to the commissioners. He explained, “You can’t just look at one section and go ‘I find this incredibly offensive, I think this is obscene.”

He also noted that if there were any books that met the state’s standard for being obscene or harmful to children — it would be a crime. “No librarian in Midland County or anywhere in Texas has ever been able to put books in the library that violate those two sections [of the penal code],” Malm said.

The county officials still seemed confused on the matter as they moved to vote on the obscenity policy. Two commissioners abstained from voting and one voted against the policy, but it still passed with Judge Johnson and Commissioner Anderson voting in favor of it.

However, it is unclear what, if any, effect the new policy will have on library operations.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.