A group of Arkansas public libraries and publishers is fighting back against the growing trend to limit what children can read.
Arkansas is among four states which have recently passed laws making it easier for librarians to be prosecuted over sexually explicit texts. Conservatives use this term to refer to books that discuss gender identity or sexuality. On Friday, a coalition, led by Central Arkansas Library System in Little Rock , filed a federal suit that it hopes will establish a precedent regarding the constitutionality such laws.
Central Arkansas Library System filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Arkansas arguing that Act 372 violates First Amendment rights by making it illegal for libraries to provide children with access to “harmful” materials. The term, which is defined as any depiction of sexual activity or nudity that appeals to a prurient desire, but has no artistic, medical, or political value, and that would be inappropriate to minors under current community standards, is too broad The law, for example, would prevent 17-year olds from viewing material deemed to explicit for 7 year olds.
The complaint alleges, as well, that the law violates due process rights of residents by allowing elected officials in localities to overrule decisions made by librarians about book challenges with no explanation or allowing appeals for those who disagree.
Nate Coulter is the executive director of Central Arkansas Library System. The system has 17 branches spread across seven cities. They feel that the people in state government do not respect their integrity and they are viewed as hostile. They have been called groomers. They have been accused of pedophilia. “They’re being targeted by a divisive and angry group who believe that the library is somehow the problem in the community.”
The prosecution or judge would have to decide how they will handle these criminal cases. However, a maximum of one year in jail could be the punishment for violating Act 372’s “harmful to Minors” provision. The law also removes protections from librarians and educators who distribute “material that is claimed to obscene”, as part of their jobs. This is a felony punishable with up to 6 years in jail; the lawsuit does not challenge this part of the legislation.
Dan Sullivan is the Republican State Senator who sponsored the bill. He defended the idea that a librarian might be sent to prison for children’s literature.
“We do not exempt doctors from the abuse laws.” “We don’t exclude pharmacists from drug law,” Sullivan said. “I don’t understand why we would exclude librarians from the laws that govern what is harmful to children,” Sullivan said.
Book Ban Battles have an Impact
The lawsuit claims that Act 372 has already had an impact in Crawford County. Public libraries there have moved books about disabled persons, puberty and religion, as well as LGBTQ characters, out of children’s sections. a copy of NBC News’ letter shows that when residents requested the books be returned, Crawford County attorney defended his decision and cited Act 372 as a reason.
The lawsuit asks a federal court to block prosecutors’ enforcement of Act 372 provisions regarding the book challenge and material “harmful to children”. It names as defendants the Crawford County Government, Crawford County Judge or CEO Chris Keith, and 28 prosecutors in the state acting in their official capacity. Crawford County and Keith didn’t immediately respond to comments.
Arkansas libraries have entered a national maelstrom regarding children’s access of materials that contain descriptions of sexuality or LGBTQ themes and characters. Conflicts about restrictions on books spread from classrooms and school libraries to public libraries in the last two years. library board meetings have become heated political battlegrounds in many cities, just as they did with school boards.
The EveryLibrary Institute is a group that advocates for librarians. This year, 15 state legislatures considered bills which would have criminalized public librarians who let minors borrow certain books. Arkansas, Indiana, and Montana have signed into law bills, while similar measures in Idaho and North Dakota were passed, but vetoed, by Republican governors. Oklahoma became the first state in last year to remove librarians from protection.
Locally, as the battles play out, some librarians are being targeted by those who think children shouldn’t be able to read books that discuss sexuality or celebrate LGBTQ identity.
In Moon Township in Pennsylvania, local officials, who had objected against children’s book about drag queens, questioned a library’s Disability Pride Month display because they believed the word “pride”, which was used, was a reference for LGBTQ people.
In Post Falls Idaho, the library board summoned police to an event in February, to deal with a crowd of people shouting “shame”, “Satan”, and other insults at those who were defending keeping LGBTQ-themed children’s books on shelves.
The county library in Llano, Texas was nearly closed down this year due to a disagreement about keeping books such as “Larry the Farting Leprechaun”, “I Need a New Butt!” and “I Need a New Butt!” because local residents complained the pictures appealed to pedophiles.
Clare Graham is the director of Malvern-Hot Spring County Library, located in central Arkansas. She has watched in disbelief how such arguments have roiled communities throughout the state.
Graham explained that the messaging was “If you’re against this, then you want children to see porn.” This is wrong, but it’s how they’ve framed it. It leaves me scratching because we’re a safe haven for many and a neutral place.
Dueling billboards in Saline County, central Arkansas, show the divisions about public libraries.
The Saline County Republican Women, and the Saline County Republican Committee have created billboards that warn people about “X-RATED BOOKS”. They also direct them to a website which focuses on books with LGBTQ characters. A children’s book by HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver , about a gay rabbit named Mike Pence’s pet bunny, is an example. The site says was inappropriate for children as part of the library’s efforts to “draw children away from Christian Values.”
Saline County Library Alliance – a group of residents who oppose book restrictions – responded by putting up a large billboard encouraging residents to “FIGHT LIES”. Bailey Morgan, the person who raised the money for the billboards and the group that opposed book restrictions, urged residents to “FIGHT THE LIES”.