By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian
Legislation introduced in the Arkansas Senate is calling for stiff penalties against libraries that loan obscene materials to youth.
Senate Bill 81 is one of the more controversial bills proposed so far in the 2023 legislative session and librarians across the state — including Clark County — are speaking out in opposition.
Betsy Fisher, who is director of the Clark County Library and Cabe Public Library in Gurdon, said the bill essentially fixes a problem that doesn’t exist. Of the more than 33,000 volumes of books and magazines, there is nothing pornographic on the shelves. “We might have things that people disagree with or don’t like the content, but nothing is obscene,” said Fisher. Books on the subjects of art or health may contain nudity or drawings, she said, but “no library has anything pornographic on their shelves.”
The bill was introduced by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro). Rep. Justin Gonzales (R-Okolona) is the lead sponsor of the bill in the House of Representatives, where he serves District 89 that includes parts of Clark, Pike, Hot Spring and Nevada counties.
Fisher says the bill also begs the question of where to draw the line between obscenity and nudity. “This bill gives one person the ability to say ‘I think this is obscene’ and for a librarian to be arrested because someone doesn’t like what is on your shelves,” said Fisher. “If there’s nudity in a book, does that make the whole work obscene? I don’t think so — maybe you think so, but which one of us gets to decide that?”
Gonzales did not return a voicemail The Arkadelphian left for him on Thursday afternoon.
The bill’s future is uncertain at this point. It was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee where it is currently listed as inactive but it can be moved back on the committee’s active roster at any point, which is not uncommon.
For Fisher and librarians like her, the bill also totters on the line of censorship. “You’re basically telling people what they can and cannot read,” said Fisher, “and nobody should be able to do that.” Fisher said the proposed legislation would require library staff to check patrons’ identification for age before loaning materials, a task the library isn’t equipped to do. She added the library would also have to re-catalog all the materials so that its system would alert staff of potentially offensive material.
Sullivan’s bill is not unique. Arkansas librarians have joined colleagues in at least 11 other states which have similar legislative proposals according to EveryLibrary, which tracks library related activities nationwide. The bills all seek, by various methods and degrees, to remove exemptions to prosecution for staff at public libraries and public school libraries for activities related materials not appropriate for minors. The Arkansas bill defines a minor as anyone 18 years of age or younger.
Fisher says it’s up to parents to determine what materials their children can read. “That’s a parent’s decision, and this bill takes that power and decision-making away,” she said, reiterating that there’s nothing on the shelves of Clark County’s two public libraries that meets the definition of obscenity.
“I would like for [the legislators proposing the bill] to come see our libraries and see what we’re doing,” Fisher added. “The books are what brings everybody together, but we are here for our communities.”