Arkansas bans children’s books on LGBTQ topics and racism; librarians and booksellers sue
A display at the Fayetteville Public Library in Fayetteville, Ark., shows a sample of some of the books which could be deemed 'obscene' under a new censorship law passed by the Republican-dominated legislature. | Jacqueline Froelich / KUAF-National Public Radio

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark.—Librarians in Arkansas could be headed to prison if they set up displays showcasing books on LGBTQ topics or the history of racism. According to the Republican-controlled legislature and local conservatives, such themes are “obscene” and not “age appropriate” for children or teenagers.

But community libraries and booksellers are fighting back against Act 372, a new censorship law passed by the GOP. A coalition of at least 17 plaintiffs—including the Central Arkansas Library System, the Arkansas Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, two independent bookstores, and 17-year-old library patron Hayden Kirby and her mother—have filed a federal lawsuit to stop implementation of the measure.

The so-called “obscenity bill,” which has been marketed by Republicans as an effort to protect children from materials deemed “harmful to minors,” is being denounced as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment by lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

Part of the Republican Party’s “anti-woke” homophobic, transphobic, and racist culture wars, the Arkansas law is aimed at whipping up hatred and paints a political target on the LGBTQ community, people of color, and the U.S. Constitution.

Backers of the law say no one under 18 should be able to access books or other materials pertaining to LGBTQ topics, racism, or sexuality. Exposing young people to the existence of such things, they say, is “indoctrination.”

Nate Coulter, executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), looks at a book in the main branch of the public library in downtown Little Rock, Ark., on May 23, 2023. CALS is suing over a new Arkansas law that goes into effect on Aug. 1 that could impose criminal penalties on librarians who knowingly provide ‘harmful’ materials to minors. | Katie Adkins / AP

Under the provisions of Act 372, “knowingly” distributing such books or informing people of how to obtain them is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year behind bars and a $2,500 fine. “Possession, sale, or distribution” of material deemed “obscene” is marked a Class D felony and carries an even stiffer penalty—up to six years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

As for who makes the decision as to what counts as obscene, the law leaves it up to local school boards, city councils, and county quorum courts.

“Seeing books and librarians as a threat to our kids is hard to square with the reality of what goes on in our libraries,” Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) Executive Director Nate Coulter said in a statement. “The plain effect of this law…will be to frighten librarians and deter libraries from offering books for the entire community of readers.”

The original bill that became Act 372 was proposed by State Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro. An LGBTQ Pride month display in the children’s section of his town’s local library in June 2021 ignited his crusade. Local fundamentalist Evangelical leaders erupted in protest over the display, leading to the library’s director and assistant director both losing their jobs. In November last year, voters then decided to cut the library’s funding in a referendum.

Writing in the state’s largest circulation newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sullivan said that before his bill, “teachers and librarians, who are the closest to our children, were 100 percent legally free to provide children obscene material.”

He said obscenity laws should provide no exceptions for educators or library professionals to make choices about book availability or appropriateness. Following his logic, displaying books on LGBTQ topics in a library is on par with selling illegal drugs, torturing animals, and sexual violence.

“After all,” Sullivan wrote, “we don’t exempt pharmacists from drug-dealing laws, slaughter houses from animal cruelty laws, and doctors from sexual assault laws.”

Act 372 is “virtually identical” to a 2003 state law that also sought to ban reading material conservatives decided was “harmful to minors,” according to CALS attorney John Adams. That bill was signed by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee; his daughter, current Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, signed the latest version.

The original 2003 bill was struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2004.

Like the faulty 2003 law, Act 372 doesn’t differentiate what is “harmful” according to age. “If some given book was inappropriate for a 7-year-old, it might be illegal for a bookseller or librarian to display it or give it to a 17-year-old,” Adams said.

Another major problem with Act 372—one common to most reactionary censorship attempts—is that it sets the vague notion of “community standards” as the guideline for determining the appropriateness of reading materials.

Under existing Arkansas law, material is deemed obscene if, “to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.”

Depending on the politics of the local community, this often amounts to homophobic, transphobic, and racist viewpoints deciding the standard—which appears to be the case in Arkansas.

Act 372 is already bringing the racists out of the woodwork. This note and image was mailed anonymously to the CALS board president, Stacey McAdoo. | @ArkNate via Twitter

Allison Hill, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), said the law “denies residents of Arkansas their constitutional right to decide for themselves and their children what they read.” She declared Act 372 an effort to criminalize librarians and booksellers.

The ABA pointed to the fact that Act 372 also opens up the potential for citizen censorship vigilantes entering bookstores for the “express purpose of finding a book that they believe is offensive,” in order to prompt a prosecution.

“It is impossible for a bookseller to know the contents of every book in their store and impossible to define ‘harmful’ for everyone,” Hill said.

The fight against Act 372 will now move to the federal courts, where past rulings against censorship bills provide some hope for optimism. A decision is not expected quickly enough to prevent the law from going into effect, however, which is set to happen on Aug. 1.

Speaking of the legal fight, CALS director Nate Coulter said, “We are doing this for our patrons and our staff, and to honor our longstanding opposition to censorship and commitment to free speech and the freedom to read.”

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.