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Attorneys for coalition of libraries, booksellers seek judicial hold on parts of new Arkansas law on library materials

Hold sought on new library law by Joseph Flaherty | June 23, 2023 at 3:39 a.m.
The expanded portion of the Fayetteville Public Library is seen Dec. 15, 2022. The public libraries of Fayetteville and Eureka Springs as well as the Little Rock-based Central Arkansas Library System are among a coalition of plaintiffs suing to overturn two provisions of Act 372, a new Arkansas law on library materials. (File Photo/NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

Attorneys for a coalition of plaintiffs suing to overturn two provisions of Act 372, a new Arkansas law on library materials, in court filings Thursday asked a judge to block enforcement of the contested elements of the law.

The law is scheduled to take effect Aug. 1, absent a ruling from the judge in the meantime.

The initial complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas on June 2. The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the legislation on March 30.

Although Act 372 has six sections, the lawsuit has challenged the constitutionality of just two of them.

The first contested section establishes a new Class A misdemeanor offense of furnishing a harmful item to a minor, exposing library personnel and others to criminal prosecution and up to one year in prison if they "knowingly" lend an item deemed harmful to minors based on existing obscenity law.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs have dubbed it the "Availability Provision."

"This will necessarily force libraries and bookstores to confine to a secure 'adults only' area -- and so to segregate from their general patrons and customers -- any item that might be deemed harmful to the youngest minor, even if there is no constitutional basis for limiting its availability to older minors or adults," the complaint said.

The other section of Act 372 that the lawsuit is seeking to overturn establishes procedures for citizens to challenge the appropriateness of physical library materials available to the public.

Successful challenges could result in the material being "relocated within the library's collection to an area that is not accessible" to minors, according to the law.

Should library officials decline to move an item, the decision could be appealed to the local city council (in the case of a municipal library) or quorum court (in the case of a county library).

Court filings on behalf of the plaintiffs refer to this section as the "Challenge Procedure." A separate section of the law establishes a similar challenge process for school districts' media centers.

A motion filed Thursday asks the judge to issue a preliminary injunction, pending a decision on the merits of the plaintiffs' claims.

Alternatively, the motion asks the judge to grant a temporary restraining order barring the application of the two provisions until a decision is made on the request for a preliminary injunction.

An accompanying brief argues that the plaintiffs will suffer "irreparable harm" if the preliminary injunction is not granted.

If the two provisions go into effect, the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights could be affected in a variety of ways, the brief says, "including librarians and booksellers facing prosecution for failing to censor constitutionally protected speech, libraries and bookstores struggling to comply with the vague mandates of the Availability Provision and Challenge Procedure, and bookstore and library patrons being faced with a rapid erosion in their access to constitutionally protected materials, without procedural protections allowing them to advocate for retention of challenged materials."

The group of 17 plaintiffs includes:

The public libraries of Fayetteville and Eureka Springs as well as the Little Rock-based Central Arkansas Library System.

Nate Coulter, the executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System, suing on his own behalf and on behalf of the library system's board.

Adam Webb, the executive director of the Garland County Library, suing on his own behalf and in his individual capacity.

Pearl's Books, located in Fayetteville, and WordsWorth Books, located in Little Rock.

Several industry groups, including the Association of American Publishers and the Arkansas Library Association.

Print Headline: Coalition seeks hold on library law


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