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Central Arkansas Library System moving forward with lawsuit against state library law

CALS decides to move forward on a legal challenge to act 372, at a board meeting
Josie Lenora
CALS board members decide to move forward on a legal challenge to Act 372 in a board meeting Thursday.

The board of the Central Arkansas Library System voted to move forward Thursday on a lawsuit against a new state law regulating public libraries.

Act 372 requires books deemed by a court to be “harmful to minors” to be placed in a restricted section that’s inaccessible to children, even with parental permission. If libraries allow minors to access restricted books, their employees could be subject to criminal penalties under the law.

John Adams, an attorney for CALS, made the case to the board detailing how he plans to challenge the law in court. He believed there were constitutional problems with the criminal penalties for librarians. He said phrases in the law, such as “harmful to minors” and “available to minors” were too vague. He said librarians were still unclear if putting books behind the counter were enough to qualify as keeping them unavailable or if they must be put behind lock and key.

He also said the law could violate the First Amendment.

Adams says librarians from across the state, bookstore owners, patrons and special interest groups want to join the lawsuit seeking to clarify and challenge the law. One of the patrons in the lawsuit is a 17-year-old Little Rock Central High School student.

Garland County Library Director Adam Webb is one of the people hoping to join the legal challenge. He says he hopes to stay with the lawsuit for its entire duration.

“I’ll give up when the course is run,” he said, explaining he would be willing to follow the case even to the U.S. Supreme Court. “We're a nation of laws, but I am also not going to follow a law that I find to be unlawful.”

Webb said he was disheartened by the attacks on libraries he had seen in recent months.

“Libraries are just trying to do what we know to this point is constitutional and right.”

CALS Executive Director Nate Coulter said he didn't feel comfortable commenting on the outcome of the case. He said the “talk of criminalization" has had a "chilling" effect on his staff.

“If you're living with [uncertainty] in the law for a while, but if you're living with it as a library with employees and there's this criminal sword hanging over you, that's untenable.”

Alexis Sims was the only board member to vote against pursuing legal action in Thursday's board meeting. She said Act 372 was not perfect, but it could protect children from stumbling upon harmful books. She said patrons' money would be better spent on building renovations and not lawsuits.

“If they want clarification that’s great,” she said. “Then they need to let the other plaintiffs who are willing to go to bat for that do that.”

She called books in the library describing sexual acts “obscene.” Librarians across the state say nothing legally determined to be obscene would be found in a public library.

The law will go into effect August 1.

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