US book bans & children’s reading freedom
Andrew Albanese, Librarians, Publishers, Bookstores Join Lawsuit Over Arkansas Library ‘Obscenity’ Law, Publishers Weekend, 26 May 2023
Some 17 plaintiffs—including the ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation, the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, and the Authors Guild—will file a federal lawsuit over a recently passed law in Arkansas, Act 372 of 2023 (also known as SB 81), which exposes librarians to criminal liability for making allegedly “obscene” books available to minors.
According to a report in the Arkansas Advocate, news of the suit comes after the Central Arkansas Library System board of directors voted on May 25 to proceed with the litigation. At press time, the suit had yet to be filed.
In a statement to PW, ALA officials confirmed their participation in the suit. “The American Library Association is pleased that the Freedom to Read Foundation, our First Amendment legal defense arm, and our state affiliate, the Arkansas Library Association, are participating in the lawsuit to vindicate Arkansas residents’ freedom to read,” ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada told PW. “The government has no place in deciding what books people can borrow or buy.”
The law in question, which was signed by governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders on March 31 and is set to take effect on August 1, removes an exemption from prosecution for school and public libraries and would empower virtually anyone to challenge the appropriateness of library materials in Arkansas. Library staff found to have “knowingly” distributed or facilitating the distribution of allegedly obscene material to a minor—defined as anyone under 18—would be open to a potential felony charge.
According to the Arkansas Advocate, the 17 plaintiffs so far include:
- Central Arkansas Library System
- Fayetteville Public Library
- The Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library
- Garland County Library executive director Adam Webb
- CALS executive director Nate Coulter
- Arkansas Library Association
- Advocates for All Arkansas Libraries
- The Authors Guild
- The American Booksellers’ Association
- The Association of American Publishers
- The Freedom to Read Foundation
- The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
- WordsWorth Books (an independent bookstore in Little Rock)
- Pearl’s Books (an independent bookstore in Fayetteville)
- Hayden Kirby (a 17-year-old CALS patron and a student at Little Rock Central High School
- Jennie Kirby (Hayden’s mother)
- Olivia Farrell (an adult CALS patron)
The impending lawsuit in Arkansas is the latest in an escalating legal offensive being waged by freedom-to-read advocates in response to the ongoing surge in book bans and legislative restrictions nationwide.
In February, the ACLU joined with librarians in Missouri to file a federal suit over Senate Bill 775, a school library obscenity law that opponents say forces librarians to censor their collections under the “threat of arbitrary enforcement of imprisonment or fines.”
In March, library advocates in Llano County, Texas, won an injunction to reinstate banned titles at their local public library and to stop future bans, with federal judge Robert Pitman holding that the library board infringed the constitutional rights of library users by unilaterally removing books it deemed inappropriate.
And most encouragingly, advocates say, recent efforts include the increasing participation of the publishing industry. News of the AAP, ABA, and Authors Guild joining the forthcoming suit in Arkansas comes after PEN America and Penguin Random House joined forces with a group of authors and parents to sue school administrators in Escambia County, Florida, over the removal of books from school libraries.
The impending suit in Arkansas looms as a crucial test. Similar library “obscenity” bills have passed in other states this year, though some been vetoed—including in Idaho, where Republican governor Brad Little rejected HB 314, the so-called Children’s School and Library Protection Act of 2023, which would have empowered parents to seek $2,500 rewards from libraries for making supposedly inappropriate materials available to minors. In his veto statement, Little said that the legislation would have imposed “sweeping, blanket assumptions on materials that could be determined as ‘harmful to minors’ in a local library,” and would have forced “one interpretation of that phrase onto all the patrons of the library.”
Also this week, lawmakers in Texas passed a bill that could also wind up in the courts. House Bill 900, which now heads to governor Greg Abbott’s desk, would regulate so-called “sexually explicit” books in school libraries and would require publishers and vendors to assign ratings based on sexual content. “Books with a ‘sexually explicit’ rating would be removed from library bookshelves,” reports the Texas Tribune. “And students who want to check out books with a ‘sexually relevant’ rating would have to get parental permission first.”
In April, a report from PEN America, Banned in the USA: State Laws Supercharge Book Suppression in Schools, said that state laws like those in Texas and Arkansas were a “significant factor” driving book bans across the nation. “The heavy-handed tactics of state legislators are mandating book bans, plain and simple,” said Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, in a release announcing the new report. “The numbers don’t lie, and they reveal a relentless crusade to constrict children’s freedom to read.”
This is a developing story.