OPINION | ROBERT STEINBUCH: Henny Penny’s high-minded hypocrisy

Robert Steinbuch
Robert Steinbuch

State Sen. Dan Sullivan sponsored Act 372, which eliminates an exception in obscenity law for librarians, codifies elected-official oversight of book placement in libraries, and criminalizes providing minors harmful material.

Nate Coulter--director of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), and lawyer for the Democratic Party of Arkansas--has fought the law since its conception.

When Coulter recently attacked Act 372 in the press, Sullivan responded: "The only confusion as to the constitutionality of [Act 372] seems to be in Nate Coulter's head ... Coulter campaigned against the bill, and now ... he has been looking to spend taxpayer money to overturn it--including falsely claiming it applies to materials the attorney general himself made clear the law doesn't cover. I wonder whether the citizens of central Arkansas, who pay amongst the highest library taxes in the state, know that the head of their library system treats their hard-earned money as a slush fund to pursue his personal progressive crusade."

Coulter claimed victimhood: "When you cannot respond on the merits or the substance of what we are talking about, then I guess you resort to attack[ing] me personally. This is not about me. It is not about Dan Sullivan. It is about the law."

Let's see.

In records obtained pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Coulter provides his version of a "substantive-merits" discussion of Act 372's nascency: "Recall that ***hole Robert Steinbuch's column telegraphing all this early in the session." (Huzzah, another column reader!)

To add insult to, well, insult, Coulter characterizes Sullivan as a "slow thinker," "cagey and untrustworthy" and Act 372's supporters as "focused [on] fear, division, and the targeting of Black and brown people and trans and gay groups."

Hello, pot.

Coulter also remarked he's seeking free representation for his anti-372 crusade, without mentioning having already used public money to pay $8,000 to private attorney John Adams--and several thousand more to private lobbyists--to oppose the bill. (Coulter wrote Adams: "CALS has to pay for the lawyer so we can ensure quality counsel." Adams responded: "Obviously I like being paid.")

Then consider Coulter's reaction to Act 372's process formalization of local-elected legislators' heretofore largely dormant oversight authority over book placement. Coulter, perhaps predictably, prefers less oversight--the current de facto environment--complaining that "language that strips the library board of the ultimate determination about what stays in a library collection ... seems at least as problematic as the criminalization of the library staff for obscenity."

Coulter is ironically correct in that neither is problematic, conceding elsewhere that his lamentations over the purported "criminalization of library staff for obscenity" are just histrionics. He said: "Our folks won't be prosecuted because it takes more than a Looney Tunes patron to claim we are pedaling obscenity. It takes a prosecuting attorney to contend something on our shelf is obscene under the definition of the law."

Contemplate further Coulter's candid admission disdaining external supervision: "I do not want [local] political bodies deciding what can and cannot be in the CALS collection of materials. We might as well just let the general assembly send us a list of books they will approve."

Why does Coulter think it's wonderful when he (a government employee) and the library board (government appointees) make decisions about relocating books, but if local elected-government officials overseeing CALS exercise the very same judgment, the walls of Jericho will somehow crumble? Maybe it's because Coulter views local legislators as, his words: "Our legislative bodies have descended to depths of ignorance and shamelessness not seen in my lifetime." (Is that anno Nathaniel?)

I get it. Some prefer unelected plutocrats having final say rather than the people's low-brow knuckle-dragging elected representatives. (Being viceroy is hard.)

Parents constantly move adult material away from children (liquor, pesticides, adult-themed media)--purported-paralyzing impracticability notwithstanding. And not providing 7-year-olds R-rated movies isn't rank censorship; it's good stewardship.

Coulter isn't without insight, however. He observed: "Fayetteville librarian's response [to Act 372 was:] ... we're not worried and won't change a thing we're doing. We're confident we are not doing anything that will get us in trouble."

Coulter then perceptively asked: "Does that make [CALS' contrasting] position look like we're screaming the sky is falling?"

Yes, Henny Penny. Yes, it does.

This is your right to know.

Robert Steinbuch, professor of law at the Bowen Law School, is a Fulbright Scholar and author of the treatise "The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act." His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

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