Libraries And Publishers File Suit Over Arkansas' 'Unconstitutional' Book Restrictions

A new law requires that material deemed “harmful to minors” be placed in separate adults-only sections of libraries and bookstores.

A group of libraries, bookstores and publishers filed a federal lawsuit Friday to challenge an Arkansas law restricting books for children and punishing librarians who violate the rule, alleging that it is “unconstitutional.”

Senate Bill 81, which was signed into law on March 31 by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) and goes into effect in August, will require libraries and bookstores to remove any material considered “harmful to minors” from their children’s sections and place it in a separate area for adults.

The “harmful to minors” designation applies to content featuring “nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse,” the law says. Librarians and booksellers who violate the rule and distribute such material to juveniles could face misdemeanor charges and up to a year in prison.

According to NBC News, Arkansas state Sen. Dan Sullivan (R), who sponsored the measure to restrict books for children, said: “We don’t exempt doctors from abuse laws. We don’t exempt pharmacists from drug laws. ... I don’t know why we would exempt librarians from these laws about what’s harmful to children.”

The Arkansas legislation reflects a nationwide move to limit children’s access to certain books at schools, libraries and elsewhere. According to a report released by the American Library Association in March, attempted book bans and restrictions at school and public libraries hit a record high in 2022, with more than half of the targeted books containing LGBTQ+ themes.

Plaintiffs in Friday’s lawsuit argue that the Arkansas law forces bookstores and libraries to “self-censor in a way that is antithetical to their core purposes.”

The suit alleges that the law “imposes a content-based restriction on speech” that “is not narrowly tailored ... is overly broad, and ... is vaguely worded,” saying this amounts to a violation of the First and 14th Amendments. It also states that under the law, older minors would be prevented from viewing age-appropriate material when it is deemed inappropriate for younger children.

In court documents, the group added that librarians and booksellers lacking the space or resources to create adults-only sections would have to remove all material considered potentially harmful to “the youngest, least developed child readers.”

Adam Webb, a librarian at Garland County Library and a plaintiff in the case, said in the court documents that he doesn’t believe his library would be able to make the expensive changes to its collection to segregate the roughly 160,000 items that could be considered inappropriate for minors.

Additionally, the Garland County Library offers volunteer positions to students, many of whom are under the age of 18. Webb noted that these minors need access to the library’s entire collection to do their work, and he expressed concern about the potential criminal violations that could arise as a result.

Advocates for All Arkansas Libraries and the Arkansas Library Association said that the law could even prevent adults from accessing books if they have young children who cannot enter the adults-only section with them but also cannot be left unattended.

The lawsuit is not the only challenge to book restrictions in Arkansas. In May, parents sued Crawford County’s library system for moving LGBTQ+ children’s books to the adult section.

Meanwhile, a similar law is being challenged in Missouri, and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) is poised to sign a bill prohibiting book bans in his state.

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