Freedom Caucus bill would prosecute Wyoming librarians as child pornographers

Wyoming librarians have long been respected as sources of education, culture, and knowledge.

Public and school libraries throughout Wyoming are outposts for learning and places for our children to grow. Librarians are the heroic folks who have ensured they continue to serve our communities.

Early Wyoming librarians like Mabel Wilkinson, from Cody, traveled the state on horseback to distribute books and library services to the far-flung corners of our state.

A bookmark featuring Mabel Wilkinson

Now, however, the so-called “Freedom Caucus” in the Wyoming Legislature is treating librarians like child pornographers and threatening to put them in jail.

Rep. Jeanette Ward (R-Casper), a Freedom Caucus member, is the sponsor of “House Bill 87 – Crimes of obscenity-revisions.” The bill would allow librarians, as well employees of museums and schools, to be prosecuted if their collections were found to contain “obscene” materials. 

Such institutions and their employees have long been exempt from obscenity laws on First Amendment grounds, which protect them from overzealous government censorship.

HB-87 would also add drawings and cartoons to the list of content that could be considered “child pornography,” specifically targeting graphic novels and comics.

Penalties are severe under the bill: a year in jail and up to a $6,000 fine per violation.

Conrrado Saldivar, president of the Wyoming Library Association, said HB-87 is a dangerous bill that, in addition to censorship, drives people away from wanting to continue the proud tradition of working in Wyoming libraries.

“It’s going to force librarians to leave the profession,” Saldivar told Better Wyoming. “This will especially affect our school librarians who have been dealing with the educational and political turmoil. They’re tired and worn out. This isn’t what they went to school for.”

Saldivar and other WLA members plan to speak against HB-87 when it’s considered by the House Revenue Committee at 8 a.m. this Thursday, Feb. 2, in Room E3 of the Wyoming State Capitol.

Book banners, from the school board to the statehouse

The 2022 elections featured candidates running for school boards across Wyoming who campaigned on issues like transgender athletes and Critical Race Theory as their main concerns.

Rep. Jeannette Ward

Ward, who moved to Wyoming in 2021, was part of a group in Natrona County that unsuccessfully tried to ban two books at a Casper high school because of their LBGTQ-related content.

Gender Queer and Trans Bodies, Trans Selves both feature cartoons and other illustrations. The Natrona County School District No. 1 trustees decided to keep the books in the teen section of the Kelly Walsh High School Library

Under HB-87, the books could be considered child pornography, and the school librarians could become subject to prosecution.

Ward aligned her 2022 Wyoming House campaign with the Florida-based group Moms for Liberty, which hosted a rally last fall featuring then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder. The rally protested the supposed “sexualization of children” and encouraged banning books featuring LGBTQ content.

Gillette resistance

The effort to ban books and demonize librarians may have champions in every level of Wyoming government today, but it has also met resistance.

In Campbell County, former legislator Scott Clem helped manufacture furor in 2021 over a performance scheduled at the Gillette public library featuring a transgender magician. 

After Clem began protesting the magic show on Facebook with posts comparing LGBTQ people to animals, the magician received death threats and the library canceled the show.

Anti-LGBTQ organizing continued in Gillette focused on the library. Protesters even brought books to the Campbell County Sheriff and asked for librarians to be prosecuted for obscenity. While prosecutors declined to bring charges, the story could have been different had HB-87 been law.

A pin worn by Gillette library supporters

Several Freedom Caucus candidates won seats on the Campbell County library board in 2022. One new trustee is Sage Bear, wife of the chair of the Wyoming Legislature’s Freedom Caucus, Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette).

The rogue library board has now broken ties with both the American Library Association and the Wyoming Library Association. It is actively working to purge the library of employees who resist censorship, including Library Executive Director Terri Lesley.

Fortunately, a grassroots group emerged to fight against censorship and protect the embattled staff.

“Library Supporters” member Vicki Swenson said the group attends every board meeting to educate members and correct misinformation and unfounded concerns about the library that have circulated in the community.

“We advocate to the library board for our freedoms provided in the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” Swenson said.

Saldivor, the Wyoming Library Association Director, said there’s no question that existing protections in Wyoming law are the reason the Gillette Library Director, Terri Lesley, still has a job.

If HB-87 is approved, librarians like Lesley face the risk of being removed from their positions and prosecuted.

Swenson said her group is popular and growing, and it will continue to work to protect their local library and the folks who work there.

The bill would remove protections for librarians against overzealous government censorship, opening them up to prosecution for child pornography and obscenity. Fortunately, some in Wyoming are fighting back against banning books and demonizing librarians.