A new bill in the Rhode Island House seeks to hold public and charter school libraries liable for distributing “indecent” material to minors. But Rep. Sam Azzinaro (D-Westerly), one of the bill's co-sponsors, says he wants to see the bill applied to all libraries. 

The legislation, introduced Wednesday, would also add “any cartoon, drawing, comic book, print, depiction or animation” to a list of explicit materials.

Azzinaro said his intent was for the bill to apply to all libraries, not just school libraries. But the text of the bill is unclear. It reads “any public or charter school library” as well as “any library pursuant to chapter 1 of title 29.” That chapter deals specifically with the functions of the State Library, although Azzinaro said he did not mean for the bill to apply to Rhode Island’s legislative library.

“I got to look at that again, because that was not my intent,” he said. “Sometimes when you're talking with the lawyers that draw up these things, they put things in there that [are] maybe not what you initially had thought of.”

Azzinaro said the legislation was prompted by “everything that's going on in the world today.” 

“The bill is saying that anyone under the age of 18 should not be allowed to go into a library and take a book out that is showing all kinds of pornographic illustrations of sex acts: oral and intercourse–men with men, woman with women, and so on and so forth,” Azzinaro said. “I don't think a child of 10, 11, 12 years old should be able to go and get a book, and bring it up, and say, ‘Look at this book–wow.’”

When asked if he was specifically worried about depictions of gay sex, Azzinaro said, “It's a concern. I mean, it's two men having sex with each other, or two women having sex with each other, a man and a woman having sex–that's all part of life, but I don't think we should be exposing it to these kids.”

He specifically singled out cartoons and animated content he considers pornography being made available to children, and said he had heard constituents raise concerns about the general issue. “It's just trying to protect our younger children,” he said.

Azzinaro said he had not read any of the graphic novel-style content he wants to prohibit from being distributed to minors because he doesn’t “go to the libraries and drag out pornographic books.”

Rhode Island ACLU Executive Director Steven Brown says his organization strongly opposes the legislation, because the bill would “have an enormous chilling impact.”

“This makes the stocking of books that might fall under this very broad definition a very serious criminal offense,” Brown said. “The clear impact would be to deter many librarians from purchasing legitimate books for the school library that young students might want to read and should have the right to read.”

In addition to libraries, the bill would also make liable anyone in "the business of selling" explicit and indecent cartoons, drawings, and comic books to anyone under 18.

Under the legislation, a person convicted could receive a fine of up to $1,000 and a sentence of up to two years in prison. 

The newly-introduced bill comes amid a national movement focused on blocking books on sexuality and gender topics from school and public libraries. One such example is "Gender Queer: A Memoir," a graphic novel by nonbinary, asexual author Maia Kobabe. It's among the most challenged books in the country – including a 2021 campaign in Westerly to get it removed from the high school library.

The other representatives sponsoring the bill – H 6324 – are Deborah Fellela, Arthur Corvese, Patricia Serpa, Gregory Costantino, Patricia Morgan, Charlene Lima, and Edward Cardillo. All but Morgan are Democrats. No sponsor other than Azzinaro responded when emailed for comment. 

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org.