Wyoming's Obscenity Bill Has "Problematic" Implications

Wyoming’s Obscenity Bill Has “Problematic” Implications for Private Schools & Museums

Written by on January 23, 2023

A statute repeal in House Bill 87 could mean infringing on the autonomy of private museums, colleges, and schools by penalizing them for anything deemed “obscene.”

“Child pornography” in schools and libraries was a hot-button issue in 2022. School and library boards were challenged for having specific literature – like The Color Purple – in their collections deemed obscene by locals and parent groups. Nearly all efforts to remove the literature from those institutions were unsuccessful.

In the spirit of these protests, House Bill 87 would revise “the crimes of obscenity” to more specifically define what qualifies as “child pornography.” If passed, the bill could allow concerned parents and community members to remove “obscene” books from schools and public libraries.

For House District 24 Representative Sandy Newsome, being more specific about “child pornography” is good. But when it comes to “obscene material,” she’s concerned that the Wyoming Legislature would overly simplify – and penalize – a complex topic.

“Obscenity is not a cut-and-dry, black-and-white determination,” Newsome said.

Colorful shelves of books

Courtesy Unsplash & Nick Fewings

Representative Newsome’s primary concern is one significant addition to the bill: the repeal of Wyoming Statute 6‑4‑302(c)(ii.)

Wyoming Statute 6-4-302 defines the crime of promoting obscenity and its legal consequences. The current statute already penalizes the dissemination of obscene material, although it doesn’t specifically include”child pornography” or “cartoons.”

However, the statute includes Section C, which provides specific exclusions to these penalties.

  • In the course of law enforcement and judicial activities
  • In the course of bona fide school, college, university, museum, or public library activities or in the employment of such an organization.

For Newsome, repealing this section of Wyoming Statute 6-4-302 makes House Bill 87 “problematic.” In fact, Newsome indicated she would vote against the bill if the repeal is kept intact.

Art program at BBCOW

Courtesy Buffalo Bill Center of the West

If House Bill 87 passes in its current form, private museums and schools could be penalized for anything deemed “obscene,”  regardless of content or context.

Newsome said. “What if someone finds Gray’s Anatomy obscene? What if, in your public library, there’s a National Geographic that shows native African women without tops? Is that considered obscene? If you go to a museum and there’s a picture of a topless woman, is that obscene?”

Furthermore, Newsome adds that many museums, colleges, and schools are not public entities. House Bill 87 could essentially dictate what is “acceptable” for private institutions to display and teach – a slippery slope with tremendous implications.

Newsome also observes that there is a statute on the books that already defines what House Bill 87 hopes to accomplish.

Wyoming Statute 6-4-303 contains a thorough definition of “child pornography” in all its forms: any photograph, film, video, picture, computer, or computer-generated image or picture. As “cartoons” would already be classified as “pictures,” House Bill 87 is somewhat redundant.

“The real meat of this bill is in that repeal,” Newsome said. “I’m all for adding ‘cartoons’ and drawings. The repeal is what I have a problem with.”

Newsome says legislators must carefully examine every bill to see what it seeks to add or remove from Wyoming’s laws and institutions.

“Often, as legislators, we don’t go and look up what’s being repealed. We say, ‘oh, they’re repealing something, no big deal.’ Well, this is a big deal. And repeals are always a big deal.”

As of Monday, Jan. 23, House Bill 87 has been introduced and referred to the Wyoming House’s Revenue Committee. There are no committee meetings scheduled at this time.


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