Obscenity bill heads to the NC Senate amid concerns of how broadly it could be applied

By: - May 1, 2023 5:56 am
A view from above the North Carolina Senate

NC Senate (Photo: Clayton Henkel)

The North Carolina Senate could vote as early as today on a controversial bill that would increase the penalty for disseminating obscenity while knowingly in the presence of a minor.

The “Prevent Harm to Children Act” has raised concern among Democratic lawmakers and some advocates about the need for the change and how it might be applied.

Sen. Buck Newton

“This isn’t addressing the question or definition of what is obscene, but it is addressing the conveyance of what is obscene to children,” said bill sponsor Sen. Buck Newton (R-Wayne) last Thursday.

“I don’t see how that’s controversial. And if we have any sheriff in any of these counties not willing to charge someone for exposing our children to this type of stuff, I think that sheriff’s got a problem. I think the voters need to know it,” said Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir) in voicing support for the bill.

Senator Paul Lowe (D-Forsyth) said while he agreed that adults should be charged for sharing obscene material with someone under 18, children often share inappropriate material with one another.

“With these phones, they pass all kinds of stuff that is beyond anything most of us in this room would ever dream of. And my concern is I wouldn’t want, because children are children, to see a young person felonized before they get old enough to think straight,” reasoned Lowe.

Sen. Paul Lowe, pictured center right

Mecklenburg County Sen. Mujtaba A. Mohammed (D) had sought to amend the bill two days earlier in the Senate Judiciary Committee, to carve out an exception for young kids who share material among their peers. But Mohammed wasn’t in the Rules Committee Thursday and the bill sponsor wasn’t promising that the bill would be amended.

“I don’t want to overstate where I am on it. I’m listening to him, and we’re having a conversation, and that’s it,” responded Newton. “I understood he was trying to drive something, and I haven’t seen the language of it. I’m not committing to agree to that amendment. I’m not ruling it out that I won’t agree to the amendment.”

Lowe wasn’t ready to give up. “A 12-year-old adolescent boy, many of them, not all of them, but many of them, go crazy if they can find a picture of a bare breast. I mean, that’s just children. I don’t want to see any children felonized behind that kind of activity.

“So, whatever we do to adults, I get it. And I have no problem with that at all, but I would like to hear real clarity on who will be charged and who won’t be charged. Because I think that right now, I’m not really clear.”

That would be up to the district attorneys and law enforcement to see what charges, if any, they want to bring, said the bill’s sponsor.

Under a Class H felony, punishment could range from unsupervised probation to an active sentence of four months to maximum of 39 months. Under the current statute the active sentence ranges from three months to 24 months.

Sen. Joyce Waddell

Sen. Joyce Waddell (D-Mecklenburg) also wanted clarity. “I know we talked in some legislation earlier about schools and materials that were in schools. Does this have anything to do with it?”

“Not directly, but it absolutely could apply, if it fell into the obscene category,” answered Newton.

The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, testified that exposure to obscenity can cause psychological harm to children, making them more aggressive or engaging in risky behaviors.

Naomi Dix, a Triangle drag performer, said where they could agree is that everyone in the room wants to protect children.

“I am however disappointed that you think that we are that stupid to think that this bill is just about that. When we know for a fact that it is literally to eradicate the trans community, the queer community, and the Black community as well,” said Dix. “As you sit here looking at your phones and pretending like you care, we know that you don’t.”

Sen. Jim Perry

Heather Redding, an Orange County activist and parent, also took exception to the intent of the bill.

“At the core, this bill is part of a book banning agenda that attacks the dignity and humanity of those who want to see their lived experiences reflected in literature and art,” Redding said in prepared remarks. “We know this will be used to empty the shelves of our school libraries of books with themes of sexual development and exploration and more.”

Sen. Perry said there was nothing ambiguous nor vague in the nine lines that make up SB 579.

“And I know we all agree that we should protect our children. They need to be playing in the yard and throwing dirt clods, not being exposed to stuff like this.”

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Clayton Henkel
Clayton Henkel

Communications Coordinator Clayton Henkel manages the NC Newsline website and daily newsletter, while also producing daily audio commentaries and the weekly News and Views radio program/podcast.