Obscenity bill blocked by legislative filibuster

March 20, 2024, 5 p.m. ·

Senator Joni Albrecht in debate Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
Sen. Joni Albrecht in debate Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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A proposal that supporters said would fight obscenity in schools and libraries, but opponents said would chill free speech, was stopped by a filibuster Wednesday in the Legislature.

Sen. Joni Albrecht is lead sponsor of LB441, which would eliminate the defense of being a librarian or teacher from prosecution for providing obscene materials. Albrecht insisted she wasn’t going after members of those professions, but wants to send a message:

“The obscenity is all around us even in the public libraries today. But do we hear of librarians being charged? We don't. They check the books out. They can't know every single book in the library what the content is. It would be for the Nebraska Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the school boards, the principal's how they run their schools. They need help, they're going to have to know what what is right and what is wrong,” Albrecht said.

Sen. John Cavanaugh said the bill would have a chilling effect, causing librarians to second-guess stocking controversial materials on their shelves.

“This is not a conversation about obscenity and it is completely false to say that there is obscenity in schools. There are books you don't like, and you want them out. And that is banning books and that is curtailing ideas because you don't like them,” Cavanaugh said.

Sen. Brian Hardin said obscene materials promote a view of sex that’s distorted from its God-given purpose.

“God likes sex. He invented it. And he invented this powerful thing for a powerful context. Culturally, we reject God's context for this powerful part of life. But unfortunately, we've decided that sex is not just for marriage. Sex is not just for a man and a woman. Sex is not just for adults. It's not just for the privacy of your bedroom. And it's really for everyone of every age group. And so sex has been stripped of its context. And so we live in a world where obscenity hurts, and we want to protect our kids from that,” Hardin said.

Sen. John Fredrickson said the proposal was designed to provoke emotional debate, something Speaker John Arch said he intends to limit going forward.

“The emotional debate that's being referred to is happening on culture war bills that are designed to divide. They're designed to create chaos. They're designed to whip up a base and not to pass good policy,
Fredrickson said.

Sen. Loren Lippincott said making schools safe was a primary consideration.

“We just simply want to have areas in school where our kids go to school to have it be safe and wholesome and we don't want there to be nasty stuff for him to read or be exposed to,” Lippincott said.

Sen. Jana Hughes said procedures are already in place for parents to use if they object to materials in schools.

“If a parent has concerns about a book, any book, it does not necessarily need to be obscene. If the parent of any student has a concern about a book in the library, they can contact the school. They tell the school they have a concern about their kid reading this book and the book is flagged by the school. The student cannot check that book out. Similarly, if there's a book on the shelf that could be obscene, not age-appropriate or has some other concern, we have a process where the book can be challenged. It goes before a committee. It is evaluated and they can decide whether it remains on the shelf or not,” Hughes said.

When senators reached eight hours of debate spread over three days, Albrecht moved for cloture, which would end debate and lead to a vote on the bill. Cloture takes 33 votes, and she got only 30, which means the bill is dead for this year.

Going forward, Speaker John Arch said he would cut in half the time limit for debate on controversial, emotionally charged bills to four hours on the first round, two on the second, and one on the third.

Also Wednesday, Sen. Ray Aguilar, chair of the Legislature’s Executive Board, announced an investigation into whether controversial remarks by Sen. Steve Halloran on the obscenity bill violated the Legislature’s workforce harassment policies.

Monday night, Halloran read excerpts from a book about rape, inserting several of his colleagues names into his narration. His speech and the reaction to it provoked a media firestorm, including charges that the Legislature was doing nothing about the incident. Aguilar denied that.

“The lack of public comment from the Executive Board has led to some unfortunate assertions that this incident was being swept under the rug. This could not be further from the case,” Aguilar said. Aguilar said senators have authorized an outside investigator..

But hours later, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh said she had filed a resolution formally accusing Halloran of sexual harassment, and wants a public hearing. Sen. Julie Slama supporter her, claiming an investigation was unnecessary and an attempt to slow-walk the issue until the session ends next month. Aguilar said he hoped the investigation could be completed by the end of the week, and added that the Executive Board will meet about the issue Thursday.