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Debate continues over bill to politicize library challenge process

Visitors look at a globe in the map division at the main branch of the New York Public Library in New York. The library announced an effort this week to make commonly banned books available through their app.
Seth Wenig
Supporters of Senate Bill 81 say it will allow communities to design libraries representing their values. Detractors worry it could be used for censorship.

A bill regulating librarians and library books is nearing final approval in the Arkansas Legislature. The bill debate has brought up questions about community values and what a collection of books in the library should represent.

In the State of Arkansas, if you want to challenge a book in a public library, the process could look different depending on where you are.

Most libraries set up their own boards to handle book challenges. But Senate Bill 81 would require every library to follow the same system. If a library disagrees with a book challenge, patrons could appeal that decision to city and county government officials. Books deemed to be obscene would be moved to a restricted section locked off to patrons under the age of 18. Librarians could suffer legal consequences if those books fall into the hands of minors.

Nate Coulter is the executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System. He says libraries should be a repository of different thoughts and ideas, free from government interference.

“And in doing so it is going to have some things that will offend everybody,” he said. “As I say often, it's not what I want you to read that matters, it's what you want to read. And we try to accommodate that.”

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro, says he views libraries as state entities. He thinks it only makes sense that their content be overseen by public officials elected by the people.

“They’re a public institution,” he said. “And it should be consistent across the state as to what their policy is.”

Sullivan drafted the bill after constituents expressed concerns about certain books in their local public library. He couldn’t provide the title, but described a book listed in a packet he gave to members of the Senate committee.

“There is one about a father having incestual sex with a child, and it's very graphic.”

Sullivan said he did not want to make ultimate judgments about the content of a particular book. Instead, he wanted courts to make the determination on which titles shouldn’t be available to children.

“We have a law currently that says there are some things that are harmful to children,” he said. “Smoking, drinking, driving a car, children can't do that. This bill says there is also material that can be harmful to children.”

During SB81’s legislative roll-through, lawmakers wondered if the bill could have a more sinister outcome. At a House committee meeting, Democratic Rep. Ashley Hudson asked Sullivan if the book challenge process could be used to perpetuate viewpoint discrimination. She said many of the books named in the debate over the bill had LGBTQ characters and themes, referencing case law making the same claims.

“What the court found was that all the books which were deemed unsuitable tended to come from gay, Jewish or Black authors,” she said.

Sullivan responded by saying the book he was concerned about involving incest did not have any LGBTQ characters.

Brittani Brooks is the Library Media Specialist at Pulaski Heights Middle School in Little Rock. She said many students come to her library wanting to read books about LGBTQ issues.

“I have had students come to me and whisper ‘Do you have any books that have gay people in them?’ And I say, 'Honey, you don't have to whisper.’”

Brooks’ library is arranged by genre, with an LGBTQ section identified by a rainbow sticker.

“This one year, I had one young lady who picked up a book she really wanted to read that had the LGBTQ sticker on it. And she said, ‘I really want to read this book but I can't take it home. I'll get in trouble.’”

Brooks has a master's degree in library science, which is required for all school librarians. As part of her degree, she studied collection development, book retention and children's literature. Brooks says she researches books before putting them in the library, and at times has had to turn down requests from students.

She's gotten many requests for "The Walking Dead."

“Which is a very graphic, very adult comic,” she said. “We don't have it. The high school libraries don’t have it. You have to go to the public library to get it.”

But there are some books about difficult issues that she has kept on her shelves. During her committee testimony speaking against the bill, Brooks mentioned the book “Speak,” a young adult novel that describes the sexual assault of a high school student. She told the committee that not every child has a safe home situation.

“But every child does have a library with books that might help them come to an adult and get help,” she told committee members.

Librarians across the state say there is nothing in public libraries which has legally been found to be obscene. But lawmakers who voted for the bill have said many books and graphic novels available in public libraries should be labeled pornography and closed off to children, regardless of whether they violate obscenity laws.

At the Faulkner County Library, Republican Rep. Stephen Meeks challenged two sex education books; one called “It's Perfectly Normal” and another titled “Sex — A Book for Teens.” They contain anatomical drawings of body parts and sexual activity which he says were inappropriate for children. According to the Arkansas Times, the library disagreed with his challenge, saying in a letter that both books contained only educational content.

In a speech supporting the bill, Meeks said the library took too long to get back to him, and that the new system would create better local control. By having city and county governments make decisions on books, Meeks said communities can design a library collection that reflects their values.

“All that they had to do, and would completely solve this problem, is to take that concerning material, set it off to the side, slap a rated-R on it, nobody under 17 allowed without an adult. That would have taken care of the whole problem,” Meeks said.

But that’s not exactly what SB81 does. The bill would set up a restricted section for challenged books that a child cannot access even with parental permission. In committee, legislators worried this could hinder kids who may need a book for a school project.

Republican Rep. Ryan Rose echoed GOP support for the bill when he said he cared about protecting children from content that could harm them.

“If this would protect one child from having their mind and their eyes exposed to explicit content that would warp their view, then I am for it,” he said.

CALS executive director Nate Coulter says the bill would punish librarians who are usually on the side of parents, and that it’s based on a misunderstanding of how libraries function.

“It's a hard world to raise kids in, but it's not the library's fault,” he said, referencing the material kids can find on social media and the internet. “And if people think their kids are coming to the library to get access to that type of content, they are badly, badly out of touch with their kid's lives.”

If the bill becomes law, Coulter says he can see all 75 of Arkansas’ counties becoming clogged with book challenges. But beyond that, he says it could set a dangerous precedent for Arkansans hoping to freely access information.

“It’s plainly and simply censorship to try to keep other people from reading books that you find inappropriate. It is censorship under the guise of trying to protect children.”

The bill returns to the Senate Judiciary committee in the coming weeks.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.