A bill that would remove a defense from state law protecting librarians from criminal prosecution for distributing obscene material passed a House panel on Thursday.
Senate Bill 81, which also aims to codify a process for challenging the "appropriateness of material" for children in public and school libraries, passed in a voice vote with dissent from several lawmakers in the Committee on Judiciary. The bill returned to the panel two days after it failed to advance following roughly three hours of testimony and discussion.
The committee also approved an amendment that bill sponsor Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, said was intended to make clarifying changes. The measure advances to the full House for further consideration.
Under the amended bill, local elected officials could require a school or public library to "relocate" challenged books within their library rather than "remove" them.
Gonzales said librarians would have to place these books in a part of the library not accessible to children.
Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, asked if the bill would still effectively require libraries that do not have a section for readers 18 or older to remove challenged books from their shelves.
Gonzales said these libraries could keep challenged books "behind the desk" or find another way to hold them while making them inaccessible to children.
Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, raised concerns the amended bill could still limit children's access to literary classics. She pointed to novels including "Brave New World," "Beloved" and the "Color Purple," which she said have appeared on lists of books some people would like to see banned.
Gonzales reiterated the bill does not create a list of banned books and said he couldn't see the novels Hudson cited as being restricted under the bill.
"Get away from those specific books. If a book is restricted and a student needs to access, can they access it?" Hudson asked.
Gonzales said students would not be able to access restricted books.
Under current law, libraries must have a written policy for addressing challenged material. The bill would require libraries to form committees to review objections. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, the bill's sponsor in the Senate, has said these committees would be subject to open meetings laws.
The bill would allow people to appeal decisions made by these committees to a body of elected officials. In the case of a school library, this body would be the school board. For a municipal or public library, appeals would go to the governing body of the county or city.
Opponents have said the challenge process could lead to libraries and local elected officials being inundated with requests from people outside their communities. Critics also have said the bill would invest legislative bodies with judicial power and could disproportionally affect books written by and about LGBTQ people.
Parents who testified in favor of the bill have said it is needed to protect children from obscene material. Supporters also have argued more transparency is needed when it comes to decisions made by libraries on which books they carry.
Under the amended bill, a librarian would be liable for distributing material "claimed" to be obscene. An earlier version would have required the material to have been "determined" to be obscene.
Sullivan has said local elected officials would not have the authority to legally classify material as obscene. Only a judge could make that determination, he said.
Another provision of the bill would allow libraries to disclose confidential library records to the parent or legal guardian of a minor.
The bill also would create a "furnishing harmful item to a minor" offense.
Under this provision, a person who knowingly provides a child with an item that is "harmful to minors" would be guilty of a Class A misdemeanor. A person also could commit this offense by transmitting through direct internet communication an item that is "harmful to minors" to a person they believe to be a minor.
Among other characteristics, an item that is "harmful to minors" must be found by an average adult "applying contemporary community standards" to have a "predominant tendency to appeal to a prurient interest in sex to minors."
An average adult also must find the item depicts or describes "nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse in a manner that is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to what is suitable for minors."
The material or performance would have to lack "serious literary, scientific, medical, artistic or political value for minors."