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NHCSO investigated schools for ‘obscene and pornographic’ books, DA found no unlawful content

According to District Attorney Ben David, parents filed complaints with law enforcement about allegedly obscene and pornographic books available from middle and high schools in New Hanover County. David said a team of investigators from the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office canvassed books and presented “offensive” passages to the District Attorney’s office for legal review — but the material was found to be protected under the First Amendment and North Carolina law.

In May, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) responded to complaints from parents by investigating nine books available from public school libraries in New Hanover County and turned them over to the District Attorney’s office to see if they violated state law.

According to a June 7 letter, Sheriff Ed McMahon notified District Attorney Ben David of the complaints, concerns David said he shared.

“On May 19, 2022 you alerted me of complaints made by parents of middle and high school students that there are books in their children’s school libraries that contain obscene and pornographic material. As a father of three children, I share the concerns of these parents,” David wrote.

An NHCSO spokesperson provided a list of nine books that had been investigated:

  • All Boys aren’t Blue
  • Out of Darkness
  • The Glass Arrow
  • Forged by Fire
  • George
  • Stamped
  • A Good Kind of Trouble
  • The 57 Bus
  • Queer, There and Everywhere

Investigators identified particular passages that David described as the “most offensive from the standpoint of just contemporary community standards.”
“On May 26, 2022, I met with Chief K. Sarvis, Major J. Hart, Captain L. Wyatt, Lt. N. Willaford, from the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office to discuss their investigation of the materials in question. They provided me with a list of the books, the schools where they are found, and specific passages from them. You have asked my office to determine if the materials in question violate any criminal laws in our state,” David wrote to McMahon.

In particular, David reviewed these passages in light of North Carolina General Statute 14-190.13, which prohibits the dissemination of harmful materials to minors.

As David noted in his letter to McMahon, state law defines “harmful materials” as:

That quality of any material or performance that depicts sexually explicit nudity or sexual activity and that, taken as a whole, has the following characteristics:

a. The average adult person applying contemporary community standards would find that the material or performance has a predominant tendency to appeal to a prurient interest of minors in sex; and

b. The average adult person applying contemporary community standards would find that the depiction of sexually explicit nudity or sexual activity in the material or performance is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community concerning what is suitable for minors; and

c. The material or performance lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

As David would later explain on Derrick Anderson’s Facebook show this Wednesday, “[w]e looked at that law very carefully, because there are books in the schools, there are books in our libraries, that many parents – and you know that I'm a dad of three children, Derek – that there are many parents who would look at those materials and say, ‘I don't want my child getting those copies of those books and the second grade and the first grade.’”

Below: Derrick Anderson and Ben David on Facebook. The conversation about the investigation begins at approximately 11:40.

However, David’s office also had to weigh ‘defenses’ for potentially offensive material provided by N.C.G.S. 14-190.15(c)(2), which “explicitly exempts parents, schools, libraries, and other governmental and medical agencies from its purview,” according to David, whose office found the law “prevents schools and their employees from being charged under this statute, assuming that the materials were disseminated as a legitimate function of employment with the school system.”

Ultimately, David informed McMahon that his “investigation did not produce any evidence that the presence of these books was not a legitimate function of employment.” In other words, his office found that the First Amendment protected the books – and the teachers and librarians who provided access to them.

“What the law says is that the First Amendment carefully carves out if you are an educational facility, including not just a school, but also a library, there's a very high standard on whether or not those materials can be considered obscene. And you can't just go arresting a school teacher or a librarian, having those materials in their possession or even giving those to children through a lesson,” David told Anderson.

David noted that this conversation happened before the incident last month, where the Proud Boys joined other protestors at the Pine Valley Library – carrying signs accusing the library of supplying pornography to children – and allegedly attempting to intimidate library patrons and parents who were there for the county-sponsored Pride Storytime event. NHCSO denied there were any disturbances and county officials claimed that “parents and children were not in danger at any time.”

Related: Officials, advocates offer differing versions after Proud Boys disrupt Pride Storytime event

While David told Anderson he shared some of the protestors’ concerns about material in the library, he defended the library’s material and staff on legal grounds, saying, “the opinion that we rendered to Sheriff McMahon prior to that meeting was, even though some who are listening right now may regard it as absolutely offensive, it was nonetheless protected speech under the First Amendment, and no one was going to be arrested for those books in the library or the schools.”

While the Pride Storytime event took place at a public library, much of the recent attention to young adult literature from right-wing groups around New Hanover County has focused on the material available in the schools — including protestors at recent Board of Education meetings.

The New Hanover County Schools district offers a review policy for materials that parents find objectionable. Parents are encouraged to fill out an online “challenge form” to their school principal, “who will pass it on to the school-level Media Technology Advisory Committee Chairperson so that the MTAC can act on the challenge” as outlined by district policy.

However, it’s become clear that many parents have either been unsatisfied with the district’s policy – or, in some cases, have sidestepped it entirely in favor of other routes, including law enforcement and public protest.

Below: District Attorney Ben David's letter to New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.
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