OPINION | NATE COULTER: Still censorship

Library bill won’t protect children

Proponents of Senate Bill 81 seem intent on vilifying school and public librarians. This bill, which has already passed the state Senate, would subject librarians to criminal charges if they provide a minor with “a harmful item” or loan “obscene” materials to patrons.

As the executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System, a lawyer, a citizen, and a parent and grandparent, I am appalled by this misguided bill. Purportedly, the bill is an attempt to protect our children from inappropriate content. In reality, if the bill passes it will promote censorship and do nothing to protect kids.

I implore the House Judiciary Committee to vote No on this harmful bill.

The legislators behind SB81 do not want to close libraries. But let me be clear: They want to control which books the library has available for all of us to read. SB81 would vest local politicians with the power to remove books that one of their constituents might deem “inappropriate” for the library. The bill does not define what it means for a book to be “inappropriate.” Libraries employ professionals to select which books to buy for their collections. At CALS, their mandate is to “develop a well-rounded collection of current, high-demand, high-interest materials in a variety of formats to meet the needs of our patrons.” Most libraries, including mine, already have a formal process in place for patrons to challenge the appropriateness of a book purchased for their library. When someone asks us to reconsider whether a book belongs in the collection at CALS, a committee of experienced librarians read the book, research whether other libraries have it, and make a recommendation to me. Based on those recommendations and criteria set forth in our library’s selection guidelines (cals.org/selection-of-materials), I decide whether to remove the book. My decision may be appealed to CALS’ library board, which is made up of community members appointed by their individual governmental bodies.

SB81 would dramatically alter this process by replacing the library board with local politicians. They would decide whether the book gets banned.

Using the government to prevent other people from reading books some people do not like is the purest form of censorship. It is the hallmark of authoritarian regimes. Judging from statements he made for a Feb. 19 article in this paper, the lead sponsor—state Sen. Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro—justifies this overreach by suggesting that voters unhappy with book-banning politicians could “vote them out” at the next election.

Thankfully, the First Amendment does not permit legislative bodies at any level to decree certain books unacceptable, no matter how politically expedient doing so might be for the city board or quorum court members. Most Americans cherish their freedom to read. Numerous public opinion surveys show that Americans are opposed to banning books from our public libraries.

I oppose this bill because it is constitutionally dubious. I am mystified by it because it defies all reason and good sense to pretend that librarians are the source of harmful content for our children.

Children do not come to the library hunting for books containing descriptions of sexual encounters of the crude nature that one supporter of the bill recently read to squirming legislative committee members. Why would they? They can easily get graphic content about sex from their phones or a computer at home.

If every library in America closed tomorrow, it would not restore Victorian Era mores to our culture’s attitudes about sex-themed content. And it certainly would not end our children’s access to that content.

Libraries exist for many reasons. Chief among them is providing materials to “enlighten, inform, entertain, and empower” members of the community. CALS’ collection contains over 760,000 books, plus another 117,000 eBooks and audiobooks. Yes, some of them contain coarse, perhaps offensive language.

Here I think of American novelist and World War II veteran Kurt Vonnegut, who is most known for his book “Slaughterhouse Five,” based on his searing experiences in Germany as a POW. When asked if he was concerned that his book might harm children, Vonnegut pointed out the obvious: “It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. … [T]hose words really don’t damage children much.” Finally, SB81 would remove privacy protections for children who need them in rare but life-threatening instances. Sadly, CALS staff are familiar with such a case.

A teen was very anxious to know whether her father could somehow discover that she had checked out a book dealing with parental sexual abuse. The staff assured her that he would not. And indeed, when the father tried to access her checkout history, the staff was able to deny that information to him under the protections of the current law.

SB81 would eliminate those protections. Thus, a bill allegedly designed to protect children would have the opposite effect.

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Nate Coulter is executive director of the Central Arkansas Library System.