New Mississippi Law Blocks Online Access for Minors in Public Schools and Libraries

House Bill 1315, signed by the governor, regulates “pornographic media exposure” to K–12-aged children and “digital and online resources” provided by vendors to those children. The bill requires a vendor or provider of digital or online resources or databases to have safety policies and technology protection measures that prohibit and prevent a person from sending, receiving, viewing, or downloading content that officials consider “obscene.”

exterior view of Mississippi State Capitol
Mississippi State Capitol
Photo by Charlie Brenner from Jackson Mississippi, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Some states have passed or proposed laws aimed at keeping library books with what officials consider “obscene” or “pornographic” material away from children. Now Mississippi, with a law that went into effect in July, is focusing on cleansing digital content.

House Bill 1315, signed by Governor Jonathan Tate Reeves, regulates “pornographic media exposure” to K–12-aged children and “digital and online resources” provided by vendors to those children. The bill requires a vendor or provider of digital or online resources or databases to have safety policies and technology protection measures that prohibit and prevent a person from sending, receiving, viewing, or downloading “child pornography,” “materials that depict or promote child sexual exploitation or trafficking,” “obscene materials” (as defined in the bill), ”inappropriate materials depicting or dealing with matters of sex, cruelty and violence in a manner likely to be injurious or harmful to a child,” or “materials that are sexually oriented.”

The bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Lee Yancey, said it is aimed at digital content providers, rather than at libraries themselves. But Phillip Carter, president of the Mississippi Library Association and director of the Starkville-Oktibbeha County Public Library System, said, “This bill impacts public libraries because it means that our vendors have to provide more secure methods for verifying the age of our patrons when offering their services.” These digital materials range from ebooks and audiobooks to, HeritageQuest Online, or Magnolia, the state’s EBSCO database, Carter said.



The bill “requires digital content providers to K–12 libraries to verify that there is no child porn or bestiality, or masturbation, or any kind of illicit sex in the material that’s been provided,” Yancey told Library Journal . He was quick to point out that the onus would be on the digital content provider, not the libraries, which are essentially held harmless. “There are no penalties for the library. There are no books that are banned.”

While that “seems a simple task,” Carter said, “it means integration with our ILS and system on the back end of our vendors’ platforms that can check for age appropriateness.” He added, “It’s not enough to simply check for age. The vendor then needs to have filters in place so that patrons under the age of 18 won’t have access to certain materials. The alternative, if a vendor is unable to provide the filtering, is that we have to restrict access to some resources to only those patrons that are 18 or older.”

Vendors who fail to comply face financial penalties and even termination of their contracts.



The impetus for the bill resulted from a call Yancey received from a licensed professional counselor in his district who deals with people who have been addicted to pornography, he told LJ. The counselor claimed that most of them began looking at pornography when they were 11, 12, or 13 years old, and wondered what could be done to address the problem.

Yancey said the bill has been misrepresented, insisting that although “the media continually reports that we are banning books and that libraries are not offering ebooks anymore because they don’t want the liability, that’s not at all what the bill does. The bill really spells out, to me, the worst of the worst cases,” such as child pornography.

The intent is preventive, he said, to keep creators of objectionable material from having a wider audience and being encouraged to continue producing that type of content. Even the motion picture industry has a rating system, he noted.

The bill is aimed at school libraries, but also children’s sections in public libraries. “You wouldn’t want to have a child get on a computer in the children’s section of a library and be able to do a search on bestiality and pull up pictures,” Yancey said. “It’s just common sense to me that these types of things would be screened out.”

But Mississippi First, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy advocacy organization, has stated on its website, “The general censorship of any content including descriptions of sexual intercourse could result in banning wide swaths of classic and contemporary literature, from Shakespeare to George Orwell’s 1984 to perhaps even the Bible. The statutory definition of ‘sexually oriented’ would also effectively ban any LGBTQ-related content.”

The group also stated, "Virtually all resources provided by a public school or public library are either digital content offered online or physical content cataloged using a digital database. All of these resources would be subject to the prohibitions in HB 1315. In order for a public school to comply with state law under HB 1315, [it] would be required to remove these resources. (Public libraries would not necessarily have to remove these resources entirely, as the restrictions only apply to minors).”

The group said that some services, such as Libby, allow libraries to choose which ebooks and audiobooks to provide. Others include myON—a student-centered, personalized digital library offered by Renaissance Learning—which provides tools to control access to specific titles as needed. “While myON, for example, is geared toward younger audiences, the expansive restrictions under HB 1315 are bound to prohibit at least some of the thousands of digital books and news articles offered through this service.”

In addition, Mississippi First noted, “Even after a likely purge of physical book collections, public libraries and public schools alike would be tasked with finding vendors for offering online services that would allow libraries and schools to hand-pick available content. They would also be tasked with the onerous process of hand-picking that content.”

Speaking for the state’s libraries, said Carter, “That would have been truly devastating to us, as we are already some of the poorest funded libraries in the country. To lose those digital resources that help us provide so many necessary services and materials to our patrons would have hamstrung us.”



Yancey said the bill signed by the governor was not the one he filed. The original bill called for “reasonable age verification methods” for confirming that the person seeking access to material is 18 or older.

The Mississippi Library Association worked closely with the Mississippi Library Commission (MLC)—a state agency established to assist libraries—legislators, and EBSCO to narrow the focus of the bill to what they believed was the legislation’s true intent—to protect children from pornography while providing access to valuable resources, Carter said.

“We expressed opposition in the early stages and throughout the bill's evolution. The original version of this bill and other bills that were introduced during the past legislative cycle would have been untenable for public and school libraries,” he added. “They would have increased our workload, subjected librarians to prosecution, stripped legislative protections for librarians, and carried potential jail time for librarians because of the items in their collections.”

Carter feels that the legislature listened to the concerns of public libraries and digital resource vendors like EBSCO, and tailored the definitions of the targeted materials to be more specific. “I do still believe there is room for misinterpretation and for materials that should not be censored by this law to come under attack,” he said, “but I believe a lot of the vagueness was dealt with and for that I’m very thankful.” EBSCO chose not to comment for this article.

MLC Deputy Director Tracy Carr told LJ that in the bill’s final version, a school or a library can provide digital content for minors as long as the vendor attests that it will comply with this bill. “’Compliant’ means that they have to attest that there is no pornography, obscenity, sexually oriented material or inappropriate material,” she said. “A couple of those are easy to determine—pornography and obscenity. Those don’t appear in library materials for children anyway. But when you say sexually oriented, there is a specific definition in Mississippi law.”

There is a gray area, however, within the term “inappropriate.”

“You can guarantee there is no pornography. But you can’t guarantee that something isn’t inappropriate. That term is very broad. It’s very subjective,” she added. “Libraries are dealing with that in a variety of ways.”

Every contract with a digital provider now has to be amended to say that they comply with the bill. As for the financial penalties for not complying, Carr said it should not get to that point, because vendors would presumably remove objectionable content that comes to their attention. “Vendors are very eager to work with us,” she said.

The new law, Carter said, will force vendors to take a hard look at their offerings—and where they are offered. “I'm trying to be optimistic that this will not halt any speech or access to materials and artistic content.”

He would be sugarcoating the situation, he added, if he said he believed the bill solved the problem legislators have with public library materials. He fully expects to see the return of more aggressive bills that never made it to the governor’s desk.

In the meantime, he said, “We’re continuing our efforts to provide incredible library service to all of our patrons and reinforcing the importance of having inclusive, diverse, and representative library collections regardless of any individual person’s personally held beliefs or ideas. My hope is that our legislature, and other legislatures across the country, will see the importance of access to those materials and that they can work with us rather than against us.”



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