Sen. Buck Newton (R-Greene Co.) is the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 579 (Photo: Screengrab of legislative hearing)
Legislators advanced a bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning that would increase the punishment for disseminating obscene materials when a minor is present.
“[The] material’s got to depict or describe in a patently offensive way sexual conduct,” said Sen. Buck Newton (R-Greene).
It’s already a crime to intentionally spread such materials in front of a child, but Senate Bill 579 — titled “Prevent Harm to Children” — would make it a Class H felony instead of a Class I, bumping up the punishment range to a maximum of more than two years behind bars.
Democrats questioned the purpose of the legislation during the committee hearing. Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) asked if the proposal was specifically targeting drag shows.
“Well, I think that obscene drag shows in front of children certainly might qualify under this law,” Newton said. “I think that’s something that’s worthy of of prosecution when they’re talking about obscene acts like that.”
Sen. Lisa Grafstein (D-Wake) asked Newton if he thought any drag show was obscene, or if there was specific conduct that would have to take place in order for it to reach the level targeted in the bill.
“That’s the beautiful thing about the First Amendment: What I like and what other people like might not be the same thing. And they may still be protected under the First Amendment,” Newton said. “This is designed to get at actions and dissemination that isn’t protected by the First Amendment.”
Grafstein then invited Newton to a drag brunch.
“I think that you’ll have some fun,” she said.
Others asked Newton hypotheticals about how the bill would affect children who share pornography with their friends. Newton said minors are generally treated differently under North Carolina laws, and said the bill doesn’t make any fundamental changes to the underlying statute.
“This is already the law. All it does is change the penalty factor,” Newton said. “So if that’s a concern, it’s already a concern of yours.”
A children’s rights advocate who has represented children in juvenile court, Sen. Mujtaba A. Mohammed (D-Mecklenburg) said minors can be transferred to the adult system if they are charged with a felony like the one in the bill. That could mean up to an eight-month active sentence for someone who doesn’t have a criminal record. Mohammed suggested an amendment that makes an exception for kids who share such materials amongst their peers.
“That way, we’re not potentially sending kids through that school to prison pipeline,” Mohammed said. “I’m not saying that it’s OK to share pornographic images on a phone with other children in your class or at a camp or wherever in your neighborhood, or just hanging out. But those are serious concerns that might come up.”
Two members of the public praised legislators for raising the bill. Sebastian King, of the NC Values Coalition, said the legislature was protecting children from “obscene materials and obscene surroundings,” and asked district attorneys to hold those accountable who would violate the law.
Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, meanwhile, warned about the perils obscenity can have on children, claiming it can lead to kids engaging in “risky sexual behaviors” and make them uninterested in school.
Creech’s concerns were an echo of those shared by Sen. Amy S. Galey (R- Alamance). Galey said 14-year-olds spend an inordinate amount of time looking at porn multiple times each day.
“We should stigmatize this where it’s just not even thinkable,” Galey said. “When we were growing up, this didn’t happen. And I cannot help but think that the rampant problems faced by adolescents and young people today are directly related to viewing pornographic, and excessively violent images, on social media, a daily diet of it every single day.”
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