Jun 2, 2023 - Politics

Librarians and booksellers challenge Arkansas' library law

Illustration of a book wrapped in caution tape

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A coalition of public libraries, bookstores and individuals filed a lawsuit Friday seeking to strike two sections of Arkansas' new law that makes it a crime for librarians to knowingly lend "harmful" or "obscene" materials to minors.

  • The complaint claims parts of Act 372 are vague, burdensome, antithetical to libraries' purpose and violate the U.S. Constitution.

Why it matters: The law could have a chilling effect on school and public librarians because of its broad language and lack of precedent, a plaintiff told Axios.

  • Librarians may remove book titles out of fear of criminal prosecution, hindering a library's mission to reflect the community it serves, Adam Webb, executive director of the Garland County Library, told Axios.

The big picture: Book bans have ramped up over the past two years, as conservative groups challenge public school libraries — generally over materials about LGBTQ issues and people of color, per Axios' Russell Contreras.

Zoom in: The complaint, filed by the Democracy Forward Foundation (DFF) on behalf of the coalition, focuses on two of the law's six sections:

  • Section 1 makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly furnish a harmful item to a minor.
  • Section 5 outlines a process for citizens to challenge materials, then appeal to a governing body of the city or county if library staff decline to relocate the material to an area inaccessible to minors.

What they're saying: "Librarians in Arkansas are very worried that they're going to do something within the normal scope of their job that's going to get them into legal jeopardy," Ben Seel, senior counsel at DFF, told Axios.

The other side: "The governor signed laws she feels protects kids and keeps them in a safe environment," Alexa Henning, spokesperson for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, told Axios via email.

  • "As she has said many times, schools and libraries are no place for the radical left’s woke agenda. We should be protecting and educating our kids, not indoctrinating them."

Between the lines: "​​When your state has the worst numbers in the entire country in regards to sexual assault and teen pregnancy and you're saying librarians should think twice before they buy books on sex ed or any of those tough topics, that's not going to do anything to make those numbers better," Webb said.

What's next: Defendants have 21 days to respond to the complaint.

  • If there's no injunction beforehand, the law will go into effect Aug. 1.

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