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Plaintiffs move to permanently block Arkansas library law

Central Arkansas Library System
The Central Arkansas Library System Main Library in Little Rock is seen in this file photo. The system is one of the plaintiffs in the suit challenging an Arkansas law regulating library content.

Plaintiffs in a legal challenge against an Arkansas law regulating library content are calling for parts of the law to be permanently blocked.

Act 372 was signed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in the 2023 legislative session. The law would allow private citizens to challenge library books based on their “appropriateness” in county quorum courts. The law also requires books deemed “harmful to minors” to be put in a restricted section, meaning students under 18 are barred from checking out the books.

Librarians who do not follow the rules could be subject to criminal penalties. Under the law, parents can also now see what books their children check out.

A motion filed Wednesday says the law is a violation of the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The United States already does not allow “obscenity” in public libraries, but this is a narrow legal term that only applies to a handful of content types. “Harmful to minors” is a much lower standard that could apply to many more books.

Critics have pointed out that challenged books or books in the library's restricted section are typically books with LGBTQ characters. A commonly challenged book in Arkansas libraries is the queer memoir "All Boys Aren't Blue" and the graphic memoir "Gender Queer: A Novel."

The lawsuit was brought by librarians, library patrons and several pro-library special interests groups in U.S. District Court for Arkansas' Western District. They asked for the law to be halted from going into effect, saying it could hurt their constitutional rights to free speech.

Federal Judge Timothy Brooks agreed; on July 29, 2023, he granted a preliminary injunction against the law. The lawsuits enjoined Sections 1 and 5 of the law.

In his opinion, Brooks said parts of the law are “very poorly drafted.”

“The term 'appropriateness' is fatally vague,” his ruling said. “All but guaranteeing that the challenge procedure will result in books removed or relocated based on the content or viewpoint expressed therein.”

Brooks also questioned the logistics of putting the books in a restricted section.

“Section 5 does not define what makes a space 'accessible to minors,' leaving libraries to guess what level of security meets the law’s requirements,” the ruling reads.

During the preliminary hearing, Brooks asked what recourse Arkansas would have to challenge a ruling that a book is not appropriate.

“We live in a democracy,” an attorney for the state said. “If the citizens are unhappy with how the quorum court or whatever the governing body is exercising their power, they are allowed to vote them out.”

Brooks said the state's response was “incredible” and “wrong on all fronts.” He said it's “well established” that children have first amendment protections. He granted the preliminary injunction out of concern over librarians losing their first amendment freedoms.

Correction: the author made edits to clarify that Sections 1 and 5 were enjoined.

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