Arkansas booksellers and librarians have filed a lawsuit challenging a new state law that would punish them with up to a year in prison for providing “harmful” books to people under age 18.
The suit challenges two parts of the law, Act 372, which is due to take effect Aug. 1. One section makes it a criminal offense to knowingly lend, make available or show to a minor any material deemed “harmful” to them. State law defines material as “harmful to minors” if it contains nudity or sexual content and appeals to a “prurient interest in sex,” “lacks serious literary, scientific, medical, artistic or political value for minors” and if, by current community standards, it is “inappropriate for minors.”
The plaintiffs also contest a section of the law that requires county and municipal libraries to establish written guidelines for the “selection, relocation and retention” of materials, including a process for individuals to challenge their “appropriateness” and request that they be moved to an area inaccessible to children.
By passing Act 372, which also strikes a statute that protected librarians from being prosecuted for circulating material “claimed to be obscene,” Arkansas became one of at least seven states that have passed laws criminalizing librarians and school employees who provide books deemed sexually explicit or “harmful” to minors, The Washington Post’s Hannah Natanson reported in May. Another dozen states have considered similar bills.
None of the bill’s four sponsors in the Arkansas General Assembly responded to a request for comment. In a May op-ed in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, state Sen. Dan Sullivan defended Act 372, saying that it simply expands existing prohibitions on “displaying” harmful material and creates a process for parents to “appeal the decisions of unelected librarians to local elected officials.”
Kandi West, the primary owner of WordsWorth Books in Little Rock, a plaintiff in the suit, expressed concerns about how to interpret the law’s definition of making material “available” to a minor. “While our store is organized with our children’s section in its own part of the store, there is nothing that keeps a minor from browsing the entire store,” she wrote in an email.
“We pride ourselves on our collection, and on having books that represent all kinds of people that are in our community,” said Daniel Jordan, who co-owns Pearl’s Books, another plaintiff, with his wife, Leah. Now he worries the law might force them to hide or remove critically acclaimed, popular books for fear that someone might deem them inappropriate for minors.