A Nebraska Lawmaker Incites Outrage Over the Reading of a Book’s Rape Scene

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A Republican state lawmaker in Nebraska wanted to make a point about explicit content in school-sanctioned books. But his decision to name two Democrats during his reading of a graphic rape scene has led to calls for his resignation.

During a debate on Monday about legislation that would tighten restrictions on the content of books used in schools, the lawmaker, State Senator Steve Halloran, read a passage from a book that he said could be found in more than a dozen public libraries across the state.

The passage from the book, the Alice Sebold memoir “Lucky,” described a sexual assault she experienced as a young woman. After giving a brief warning and asking parents to tell their young children to leave the room or mute the broadcast if they were watching online, Mr. Halloran stood on the floor of the State Capitol in Lincoln and interjected the names of two of his Democratic colleagues — Machaela Cavanaugh and her brother, John — into the text as he read it aloud.

At one point, he inserted “Senator Cavanaugh” while reading a section in which Ms. Sebold described a man demanding oral sex from her. It was not clear if Mr. Halloran was referring to Mr. or Ms. Cavanaugh.

Shortly after Mr. Halloran finished reading the passage with his interjections, Ms. Cavanaugh responded, tearfully calling his altering of the passage unnecessary harassment that diminished the integrity of the legislation they were debating.

“Let’s have a real conversation,” she said to Mr. Halloran. “But don’t start reading rape scenes and saying my name over and over again. You don’t know anything about anyone else’s life and I can tell you that women in this body have been subject to sexual violence. I didn’t know you were capable of such cruelty.”

Afterward, lawmakers adjourned the session early. Ms. Cavanaugh also posted about the incident on X, calling it “gross, disrespectful and beneath the Nebraska Unicameral.”

In an interview, Ms. Cavanaugh said she was shocked when she heard Mr. Halloran say her last name.

“I think we have gotten into a place in our state and our country where we have this really hyperbolic rhetoric and it’s become normalized,” she said. “I do appreciate that, in this instance, people are not acting like this is normal.”

Mr. Halloran apologized in a speech at the Capitol on Tuesday morning. But he also defended his remarks, saying that he did not intend to “trivialize” sexual assault and that he wanted to draw attention to graphic content being read in schools. He added that his comments were initially directed at Mr. Cavanaugh. He said the names of Mr. Cavanaugh and his sister, he argued on Tuesday, because he felt that they were not paying attention as he was speaking.

“I apologize for interjecting senators’ names in the middle of reading a transcription — a transcribed testimony in a public hearing in reference to a book that is, in some schools, required reading,” Mr. Halloran said.

He added, “Should I have interjected the senators’ names? No. Sometimes we do things on the floor in the midst of making a statement that we shouldn’t have done.”

In an interview on Tuesday evening, Mr. Cavanaugh called Mr. Halloran’s remarks “aggressive,” but said the substance of his apology was what mattered.

“Whether directed at me or her, it impacted everyone who was there to see it,” he said of Mr. Halloran’s reading, adding, “He hurt people’s feelings.”

A handful of Nebraska state lawmakers quickly condemned Mr. Halloran’s remarks. One Republican state senator, Julie Slama, called for Mr. Halloran to resign. On Tuesday, a group of protesters repeated those calls in demonstrations outside his office in the State Capitol.

“Interjecting a colleague’s name is so far beyond the line of decency for any professional workplace,” Ms. Slama said in an interview. She called his apology “one of the most halfhearted, ingenuine apologies I’ve ever seen.”

Mr. Halloran did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Halloran, the former president of the National Farmers Organization, a farmer lobbying group, has served in the state legislature since 2016.

During his tenure, he has largely aligned himself with the far-right flank of Nebraska politics, particularly on issues of education. In 2017, he was one of a handful of senators to oppose a legislative amendment that would require schools to accommodate students who were breastfeeding. Later that year, a confrontation unfolded at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln between a lecturer and a student involved with Turning Point USA, a conservative student group. Mr. Halloran sided with the student and said that the university was hostile to conservatives on its campus.

State Senator John Arch, a Republican who is the speaker of the legislature, apologized to Ms. Cavanaugh and to the body’s female lawmakers on Tuesday, calling for more civility and “wisdom” in debating legislation.

“I do not condone the reading of the graphic rape scene on the floor of the legislature nor do I condone personally directing that passage to another member or members of this legislature, even if it is to make a point,” Mr. Arch said. “Despite the R-rated warning, we do not know who is on the other side of the television screen watching and listening — certainly children that this bill is directed to protect, not to mention survivors of sexual assault.”

Ms. Cavanaugh said she has not had a conversation with Mr. Halloran since he gave the reading, adding that she did not find his apology genuine. She said she does not plan to formally call for him to leave office, but said that she was not opposed to the push by her colleagues to oust him.

“I think that he has exhibited a pattern of behavior not in just in this instance but in other instances that show that he has a great deal of disrespect for people who do not agree with him and people who are female,” she said. “And I find it concerning. And I would not be sad to see him go.”


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