Arkansas Act 372, which was passed in 2023, has sparked controversy and legal challenges due to its potential impact on public libraries and the distribution of certain books. The act creates a process for challenging books in public libraries and allows library officials to appeal these challenges with local government bodies. Additionally, the act removes the exemption that previously protected librarians from criminal penalties if they knowingly provided certain materials to minors. The law was primarily pushed by Republicans who claimed it was necessary to protect minors, particularly from LGBTQ-related books.
Act 372 establishes a uniform process for challenging library books and permits appeals to be heard by local elected officials, such as city councils and county quorum courts. It also requires libraries to separate materials deemed “harmful” into a separate section that is inaccessible to children. However, this law has faced legal challenges from various plaintiffs, including libraries, bookstores, advocacy groups, and individual library patrons. They argue that the law is unconstitutional and vague, particularly in Section 5, which allows anyone to challenge the “appropriateness” of a book without defining the term.
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Brooks recently granted a preliminary injunction against the implementation of Act 372, preventing it from going into effect on August 1. This decision was made in response to a lawsuit filed by the plaintiffs who argued that the law violated the First Amendment by creating “prior restraint” and imposing criminal liability on librarians. Judge Brooks expressed concerns about the vagueness of the law and its potential to restrict access to constitutionally protected speech.
The plaintiffs and their attorney, John Adams, raised several issues with Act 372. They argued that if libraries and bookstores were to comply with the law, they would need to keep minors away from any material with sexual content, which could unjustly limit older minors' access to age-appropriate books. The law could also prevent adults from accessing reading material appropriate for them if they are accompanied by minor children. Adams emphasized that the law's vagueness would lead to self-censorship among librarians and others to avoid potential criminal charges.
Supporters of Act 372 believe that it is necessary to prevent minors from accessing content they consider inappropriate or harmful. They argue that certain books, particularly those related to LGBTQ issues, can be seen as “indoctrination” and should not be accessible to children. However, opponents argue that the law amounts to censorship and restricts access to content that reflects the diversity of the community.
The fate of Act 372 now lies in the hands of the federal judge, Timothy Brooks, who heard oral arguments and is expected to make a final decision on the law's constitutionality. The judge expressed concerns about the law's overly broad nature and its lack of clarity, which could allow local governing bodies to interpret challenges as they see fit, rather than following constitutional guidelines. Attorney General Tim Griffin's office has stated that they will vigorously defend the law, but the judge's ruling will determine its future.
The outcome of this legal battle will have significant implications for the freedom of expression and access to information in Arkansas's public libraries. It will also set a precedent for similar laws and challenges in other states. As the debate continues, it remains essential to find a balance between protecting minors and upholding the First Amendment rights of individuals.
0. “Prior restraint, and ‘appropriateness’ debated in hearing about pending Arkansas library law” talkbusiness.net, 24 Jul. 2023, https://talkbusiness.net/2023/07/prior-restraint-and-appropriateness-debated-in-hearing-about-pending-arkansas-library-law/
1. “Citing First Amendment rights, federal judge blocks implementation of Act 372 (Updated)” talkbusiness.net, 29 Jul. 2023, https://talkbusiness.net/2023/07/citing-first-amendment-rights-federal-judge-blocks-implementation-of-act-372-updated
2. “UPDATE: Federal judge blocks Arkansas's library censorship law from taking effect” Arkansas Times, 29 Jul. 2023, https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2023/07/29/federal-judge-blocks-arkansass-library-censorship-law-from-taking-effect
3. “Court blocks Arkansas’s Restrictive Censorship Law which criminalizes librarians” 4029tv, 29 Jul. 2023, https://www.4029tv.com/article/criminalizing-librarians/44680767
4. “Arkansas Advocate : Federal judge will rule this week on imminent application of Arkansas' library obscenity law” Magnoliareporter, 26 Jul. 2023, http://www.magnoliareporter.com/news_and_business/regional_news/article_663dbae6-2ba4-11ee-9ce3-1fd903fe9d58.html
5. “Preliminary ruling on Arkansas library law coming by week's end, judge says” Arkansas Times, 25 Jul. 2023, https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2023/07/25/preliminary-ruling-on-arkansas-library-law-coming-by-weeks-end-judge-says