OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Librarians on edge

Public librarians and school librarians soon will stand newly subjected to jailing in Arkansas. It conceivably could happen if a parent objected to a book a child got from the library and the local prosecutor chose to pander to the tyrants of the cultural right.

These librarians seem to fret a little about that but more about the full array of confusion attending this new law that the right-wing zealots made at the Capitol this session.

Here are some of the questions:

What are librarians to do about supposedly objectionable material the law requires them to put into private smut rooms when the same material is available digitally through apps provided by routine library services that are much more difficult to edit and separate?

Do libraries need new policies with new timetables for handling complaints, considering that some of those policies set 30-day timetables? Librarians are hearing that local intolerant tyrants are lining up with their lists of bad books about which to complain formally the minute this new law takes effect in August. The law requires first an internal library process and then an appeal to the relevant jurisdictional political body, be it the school board, city council or quorum court. That will take some time if a high volume of complaints arrive at once.

What should be done with publicly available printed material under objection during the review process? May it remain available? Or should it go into the smut room? Or should it go into some purgatory position?

And how much more should a library or its governing body expect to be spending for legal services--and where will that money come from--as the Church Ladies swarm?

Here are the best available answers on that, all tentative:

First, Sen. Dan Sullivan, the law's sponsor, and other anti-book forces seem unworried about objectionable material that is not printed on paper. Unworried or uncaring, that is. They seem only to want to mess with physical libraries to make a big show to Church Ladies back home. Physical smut rooms are more effective for that than trying to deal with sophisticated software that restricts material within apps.

As for the other questions, about timetables and material under challenge and legal costs, the answers currently seem to be ... don't know, don't know, don't know.

State library director Jennifer Chilcoat recently produced a memo for librarians that was long and well done. In it she said librarians probably should not worry much about going to jail because it seemed highly unlikely that a credible charge would be brought reflecting, as the law provides, that a librarian knew a nasty book was available, and left it out knowing that a child of book-burn-inclined parents would come get it.

Chilcoat said the law does not in any section ban materials online or in apps.

Later, though, she sent out an advisory that the memo should be ignored because everything remains under review.

Local librarians generally took that to mean the state was not sure about language in the law that, while never referring to restricting online or app material, made blanket statements about objectionable material, perhaps without regard to the form.

There is likely to be litigation either for clarity in what the law means or to try to overturn the law altogether. The Central Arkansas Library System board voted last week to continue research and its legal counsel made clear that his firm would bring a lawsuit--worthy and solid, he said--for a discounted charge.

It has been suggested to me that what could well have happened is that the authoritarian governor, Sarah Sanders, didn't like the distribution of a memo from a person in her charge that seemed to say the portion of the law repealing obscenity-law immunity for librarians didn't amount to much if anything. That would be something less than the iron hand of liberal-owning with which she either wants to rule or wants to appear to rule.

If you take out all the culture-war bills that didn't amount to anything, all that will be left of the session is a giant prison and destroyed public schools.

The best solution would be to repeal this law altogether in deference to two once-glorious principles. One is that freedom must ring. The other is that decisions about how much ringing freedom to deny children must be the first and ideally only purview of responsible parents.

If you're going to trust parents to take more than $6,000 in taxpayer money for each child they presume to educate at home, then you may as well trust them on reading material.

But this new ruling mania in state government is all about big-government and nanny-state activism that panders to the most conservatively extreme among constituents and insists on passing something--anything--for appearance's sake regardless of whether it makes sense or amounts to anything.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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