Let's begin a tad backward, with what will be an honest question from many on the cultural right in response to what this column is going to be about: Why would libraries go to court to try to hang on to the right to make dirty books available to children?
The answer is that librarians don't make available pornography. It's that they understand that people have different sensibilities. It's that they know that some of their books, usually in the young-adult sections and acknowledging homosexuality or gender issues in an accepting way, will be deemed inappropriate for children by parents who will mean by alleging inappropriateness that they personally disapprove.
It's that there are processes in place for citizens to file objections to specific books and for librarians to review those books alleged to be objectionable. It's that, yes, objections usually will be respectfully rejected.
Here's how that can happen: Let's say there is a book about war that contains a photograph of bomber pilots standing by the noses of their planes on which "nose art" of bared female breasts has been painted. A parent complains that kids shouldn't be looking at that. The library position is that the complaining parent should keep his or her children from seeing it, but shouldn't try to ban or sequester an important book because of one photograph.
The picture wasn't pornography. It was the history of war.
Librarians think the answers are to require parental accompaniment for the youngest children; for parents to put their older kids' library cards on family accounts and otherwise monitor their own children responsibly, and for society to resist banning or sequestering in special "smut rooms," as they're sometimes called derisively, all books that personally offend some but not all.
The biggest problem with the cultural right has always been not what it believes culturally or religiously, but what it believes governmentally--that everyone ought to be made to live by the way it believes. That can get crossways with a diverse society granted the constitutional rights of free expression, religion, association and equal rights.
So, that gets us to the beginning: A large number of plaintiffs--public libraries in central Arkansas, Fayetteville and Eureka Springs, state and national library associations and advocacy groups, a student, a parent, commercial bookstores in Little Rock and Fayetteville, and the American Civil Liberties Union--signed on to a suit filed late last week in federal court in the Western District of Arkansas.
The suit seeks to invalidate the bill passed in the last session setting up a political review process by which books alleged by members of the public to be obscene could be removed from main library access and placed in special rooms inaccessible to those 17 and under, even providing that a librarian could be brought up on charges and jailed if one of those sequestered books wound up in a minor child's possession in a way the librarian "knowingly" permitted.
By "political review process," I refer to the new law's provisions that objections would go either to school boards, city councils or county quorum courts, depending on the kind of library, rather than to library-created review boards or judicial bodies.
The suit asserts that all of the aforementioned amounts to a "vague, sweeping law that restrains public libraries and book-sellers in Arkansas from making available constitutionally protected books or other media."
An adult who is told that the book he wants to check out or buy is in a private area in the back is being restrained by the inconvenience and conspicuousness, the suit says. A small rural library with no space for a private room and no resources to build one is effectively being told to ban the book to everyone, the suit also says.
All of that, the suit alleges, runs afoul of the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
For that matter, the suit argues, the new law's grant of the option to libraries to take books under the appeal process off shelves during the decision-making period amounts to illegal "prior restraint."
And, by the way, the suit points out that the state Legislature in 2003 passed a bill quite similar to this one--holding bookstores liable for displayed materials that minors might see--and that, in 2004, then-U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele threw out key sections as unconstitutional.
The cultural right is not new. Nor is the U.S. Constitution. Most of these kinds of issues have arisen before. The only variant is political power at the time, and the effect of that political power on the kinds of judges you get.
Eisele was generally viewed as a Rockefeller Republican. There are no more of those.
Freedom is freedom. But the fleeting definition of that hinges on prevailing politics.
John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at email@example.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.