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Rapert's attempt to halt library funding fails

State Sen. Jason Rapert (file photo).
Michael Hibblen
/
Little Rock Public Radio
Library Board member Jason Rapert's motion to halt funding for the libraries suing the state failed, after the motion failed to receive a second.

An attempt by a former state lawmaker to withhold funding to some libraries failed on Friday.

Former Republican Sen. Jason Rapert was appointed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders to the state Library Board in November. At his first meeting Friday, Rapert made a motion to withhold funding to libraries that are actively suing the state.

The lawsuit

A lawsuit was filed in June of last year over whether the state may enforce parts of Act 372. The law would require all libraries to create a restricted section for books considered “harmful to minors” and could criminally penalize librarians who do not comply. The law describes harmful items as “material or performance that depicts or describes nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.”

The law was sponsored by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro. He feels libraries that receive state funding should work to shield children from sexually explicit content.

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

Many detractors of the bill worry the law is disingenuous and vague. While it was still in the legislature, Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, spoke against the law, worried it could promote so-called “viewpoint discrimination.” An example would be if someone claims to challenge a book for its sexual content, but is actually offended by other themes of the book, such as containing LGBTQ+ characters.

This year, Arkansas has seen several book challenges primarily against books containing LGBTQ+ themes. The queer memoir “All Boys Aren't Blue” is frequently found in libraries' young adult section and was challenged across the state in 2023. Sex ed books like “It's Perfectly Normal” also faced public opposition to their presence in libraries.

A lawsuit was brought by 18 plaintiffs against Act 372. This included several patrons, bookstores, reading nonprofits and the Central Arkansas Library System. The suit argued the law violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments by being too vague and difficult to enforce.

The complaint calls the law “sweeping.” It says it “imposes a content-based restriction on speech,” by “broadly regulating the display of protected materials that are constitutionality protected.”

It argued that phrases in the law like “appropriateness” and “person affected by [a] material” are unconstitutionally vague. It says some libraries may not have the resources to set up restricted sections for certain books deemed offensive, seeing as many Arkansas libraries are small.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks agreed. He halted act Act 372 from being enforced. In his ruling, he said libraries serve a valuable role in our democracy dating back to the founding fathers.

“What has happened in Arkansas to cause its communities to lose faith and confidence in their local librarians,” he asked. “What is it that prompted the General Assembly’s newfound suspicion? And why has the state found it necessary to target librarians for criminal prosecution?”

He said the law gives libraries a “grim choice” to either ban minors from using the library or remove all books with sexual content.

The meeting

Rapert filed a motion at the Friday board meeting to halt funding to libraries suing the state, saying it would be irresponsible to divert taxpayer dollars to such lawsuits.

Rapert indicated his intent to file the motion early on in the meeting. He then questioned how much money had already been dispersed for litigation and how much was still remaining. Rapert said was willing to release the money after the litigation was complete.

“Why would we or any business release funds to entities that are suing us,” asked Rapert. “We’re basically just writing a check to their attorneys for their litigation.”

Some members of the board were vocal in their opposition to the motion. Pamela Meredith, speaking via Zoom, said, “if we did withhold funds, that would not only hurt the library as a building or as an agency, but it would hurt the entire community.”

Meredith felt the board would be taking a political stance by withholding the funds. Rapert disagreed.

“We can disagree civilly on any of those things, but I will not allow my comments to be categorized as political,” Rapert said.

Board member Lupe Peña de Martínez said she would feel more comfortable voting on the motion if the board was able to see exactly how the libraries in question were funding their litigation. She voiced concern over whether libraries could sustain themselves without state funding.

Using the Central Arkansas Library System as an example, Rapert said he felt the library was using state funding to create a “slush fund” for what he called their “political activism.”

The motion did not receive a second, meaning it never came up for a full vote.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.
Nathan Treece is a reporter and local host of NPR's Morning Edition for Little Rock Public Radio.