Region & State

More questions arise in ‘obscene’ book bill

Special to The Arkadelphian

Senate Bill 81 — often referred to as the “Obscene Library Bill” — has been approved by the Arkansas Senate and is now on its way to the House of Representatives. The lead sponsor there is state Rep. Justin Gonzales (R-Okolona) who represents parts of Clark, Pike, Hot Spring and Nevada counties.

In a telephone interview Saturday, Gonzales said he was sponsoring the bill as a favor to his friend and colleague, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) and not because of any citizen complaints or concerns in his district. “I have heard reports from other areas in the state about materials in libraries that I would not want my kids to see,” Gonzales told The Arkadelphian. “I thought it was important to shut it off before it spreads.”

Gonzales said he had attended a meeting with Sullivan and the Arkansas Library Association but he has not consulted any librarians, county judges or mayors in his district.

Local library policies

Opponents of the bill feel that current library policies make much of SB81 unnecessary, and question if the legislators really understand how Arkansas libraries function. Betsy Fisher, director of Clark County’s library system, pointed out in an interview recently that any library receiving funds through the state library must be led by a director with a masters degree in library science. When asked about this issue, Rep. Gonzales said legislators cannot be experts in all matters that come before them.

The Clark County library system, like all public and school libraries in the state, has extensive policies regarding the development of the library’s collection, issuance of library cards and the method by which a book may be challenged. Asked about book challenges in Clark County, Fisher said nothing in the county’s library’s collection had been challenged in her three years as library director and longtime staff members could not recall any book being challenged.

SB81 adds a new layer to the existing process to remove a library book by giving the authority to quorum courts, city councils and school boards. Under current rules, public school administrators and public library boards make the decision to grant or deny a citizen’s request to remove a book. Sullivan has said he believes it is best for elected officials to have the final say, but opponents have been quick to point out that public library boards and public school administrators are chosen by local elected officials.

This issue was highlighted recently in a report to the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) by its director Nate Coulter, who said, “This bill, at its core, is about censorship by using local elected bodies as tribunals for banning books from the library that some people find inappropriate and do not want anyone to read.” Coulter’s predecessor, Bobby Roberts, chose to comment and predicted SB81 would be found either unconstitutional or unenforceable. Roberts also predicted the CALS board would see patrons objecting more to a book’s subject matter, such as gay marriage, rather that any obscene materials.

Fisher pointed out in a recent interview that the local library “might have things that people disagree with or don’t like the content, but nothing is obscene.” Books on the subjects of art or health may contain nudity or drawings, she said, but “no library has anything pornographic on their shelves.”

Who defines obscene?

In the Senate hearings, state Sen. Clark Tucker (D-Little Rock) has pointed out that obscene materials are clearly defined and prohibited by federal and state laws and are distinctly different from books with subject matter that some people might find objectionable.

Despite recent amendments, the bill still removes exemptions from prosecution from obscenity laws for employees, directors or trustees of a bona fide school or public library. SB81 is extremely similar to laws that have been introduced in as many as 15 other states where exemptions from obscenity laws could be removed.

Professional library organizations and civil liberty groups in a growing number of states, including Texas and Missouri, have filed lawsuits challenging what they consider attacks on librarians and efforts to ban books. In public comments about a lawsuit filed last week in Missouri, Melissa Corey, president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, said her association “strives to uphold the core tenets of school librarianship, including both intellectual freedom and the freedom to read. School librarians in Missouri serve as trained, certified experts when curating developmentally appropriate collections for our students. This statute has created a chilling effect on school library collection development, resulting in fewer representative books within our collections, due to fear of prosecution.”

Part of the bill’s legislative record is an Impact Assessment, issued by the Arkansas Sentencing Commission, that appears to support the idea that the bill is not necessary. The assessment identifies only one conviction for state obscenity law violations in the last three years and predicts a “minimum impact” on state correctional resources. This could change, however, since SB81 eliminates criminal immunity for libraries and creates a new cause for civil action against libraries by citizens.

Internet more dangerous than libraries

In his report to the Central Arkansas Library board, CALS director Nate Coulter questioned whether those upset about the contents of library shelves bar their children from the Internet, social media or electronic devices. “I hate to tell them, but if you’re disturbed — as I oftentimes am — about the coarsening of language and the culture, your kids are not getting it from me or the library. Unfortunately, they don’t come here enough,” Coulter said. “They’re getting it from their computers at home or their devices.”

Coulter said it was “mean-spirited” to direct the measure at librarians and teachers, whom he described as “one of your biggest allies at helping you raise your children. We want your children to read, we want you to be involved in helping them decide what they want to read.”

Fisher pointed to the library’s policy on library cards when asked about the new requirement in SB81 that a library disclose confidential library records to the parent or legal guardian of a patron who is younger than 18. The policy requires a minor’s parent or legal guardian to be present and fill out the required application in order for a minor over five years old to get a library card. While the policy does not override various federal, state and industry regulations that regulate what a library can and cannot reveal to a minor’s guardian, it does ensure that minors do not get library privileges without their parent’s knowledge.

Hidden cost in challenging a book

Since SB81 was approved by the Senate, several Garland County officials have expressed concern about the bill. One of those officials is Garland County Judge Darryl Mahoney, who pointed out several issues the bill could cause for the quorum court there, including the time it could take for quorum court members to review challenged books. The bill gives a school board, quorum court or city council 30 days to respond to a challenge that is appealed from a city, county or school library. Meeting this requirement could have financial impact because members of these groups are usually paid per meeting, and additional special meetings would likely be required to meet the 30-day deadline for response. Mahoney said the quorum court would try to deal with the challenge hearing during regular meetings to restrain extra cost, but special meetings would likely be unavoidable.

Garland County Library Director Adam Webb is another official who has expressed concerns about SB81. He feels like the legislature is trying to take back authority that was given to library boards because counties and cities don’t want to run the complex organization. Like others, Webb is also concerned about the legality of quorum courts and city councils making judicial decisions on the highly complex issues of protected speech and obscenity. Since quorum courts and city councils are legislative bodies that do not have judicial powers, the legality of any book banning decisions they might make could result in costly and time-consuming court challenges.

SB81 is one of 23 bills on House Judiciary Committee agenda for Tuesday at 10 a.m. It is one of at least three highly controversial bills on the agenda; each could take more time to debate than what is typically allowed for committee meetings. When asked if the crowded agenda would limit the public’s opportunity to speak on the bill, Rep. Gonzales said he always preferred plenty of time for public comment but it was just not always possible. However, on Tuesday, neither the House nor Senate has a late morning or afternoon session scheduled, so the day’s committee meeting could run into the afternoon. 

Legislative committee meetings can be viewed live on the legislature’s web site and for a limited time after the meeting has adjourned.

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  1. This is an absolutely pathetic bill, designed to control people and take away their rights. The people pushing for this want to keep Arkansans ignorant and dependent on the government to tell them what to do. We can’t let that happen.

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