Arkansas librarians brace for impact of law making them liable for “obscene” content

Existing challenge policies are rarely used, records requests show

By: - May 1, 2023 5:00 am

(Getty Images)

Libraries across Arkansas are preparing for a potential wave of challenges when a new state law takes effect later this year, changing how libraries handle controversial material. 

But some public libraries have already seen an outpouring of public opposition to content that some consider harmful to children. 

Those librarians’ experiences offer a preview of what some fear might come starting July 31, when Act 372 of 2023 is expected to take effect.

The law will allow people to challenge library materials they consider “obscene” and create potential criminal liability for librarians who disseminate such materials to minors. Local elected officials will have the final say over whether a challenged book can stay on publicly available library shelves or must be moved to an area that minors cannot access.

Act 372 has brought statewide attention to the debate over whether anyone under 18 should be able to access content pertaining to racism, sexual activity and LGBTQ+ identities. Supporters say this content amounts to “indoctrination” and is fundamentally inappropriate for children. Opponents contend the content reflects the community and that restricting access is censorship.

Employees of public or school libraries that “knowingly” distribute obscene material or inform others of how to obtain it would risk conviction of a Class D felony, the law states. Knowingly possessing obscene material would risk conviction of a Class A misdemeanor.

Librarians statewide have criticized Act 372 and the movement behind it.

“It doesn’t seem to be about good governance so much as preventing libraries from purchasing books with certain points of view,” said Adam Webb, executive director of the Garland County Library System. “That’s a very un-American sentiment that I do not share.”

I have to do so much PR about the issues and show that the library’s valuable that I can’t actually do my library work.

– Vanessa Adams, Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library system director

Before Act 372 was introduced, some Arkansas libraries had already seen a handful of complaints about this range of material from community members. Webb and other library directors said these complaints were often few and far between and public outcry against certain content has been minimal so far.

The Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library system was an exception. The system saw voters cut its funding in half in 2022 after protests over an LGBTQ+ book display and a transgender author’s visit to the library within the previous couple of years. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, was the Senate sponsor of the bill that became Act 372.

The outcry in Jonesboro has died down since November’s narrow vote to cut the taxes that support the library system, director Vanessa Adams said. Fewer members of the community have been posting on social media or coming to library board meetings to complain, she said.

“It would be [a relief] if I trusted that the other side was actually going to leave us alone, but, no, I am always on pins and needles,” Adams said. “I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop because I don’t know what they’re going to do next.”

Some librarians in other parts of Arkansas feel the same anxiety. Librarians in the Arkansas River Valley Regional Library System — Franklin, Johnson, Logan and Yell counties — worry about checking out certain books because they have seen social media posts calling them pedophiles and other insults, director Misty Hawkins said.

“These are local people who would never say that kind of stuff to our faces,” Hawkins said. “We grocery shop next to them, and they don’t realize it’s us they’re talking about, and it’s sad.”

Two Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library administrators, David Eckert and Tonya Ryals, left the system and the state in 2021, partly because of harassment they faced over the availability of LGBTQ+ materials.

Eckert, who now runs a public library in Iowa, said this movement can have a chilling effect on librarians advertising the availability of certain books or making them available at all. This does a disservice to the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups, he said.

“They pay their taxes like everyone else, and we’re supposed to serve the entire community,” Eckert said.

The books under fire

Books that conservative individuals and groups have frequently called inappropriate for children include fiction and nonfiction works by and about LGBTQ+ individuals. Some are memoirs, such as “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson. Others are specifically aimed at children, such as “The GayBCs” by M.L. Webb and “Worm Loves Worm” by J.J. Austrian.

Sex education books, such as “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health” by Robie Harris, have also been the subject of several material reconsideration forms at multiple Arkansas libraries.

Every library system has a policy in place to address challenges from the public, and those policies will have to be altered to comply with Act 372.

The Arkansas Advocate obtained seven library systems’ reconsideration forms via Freedom of Information Act requests. One of the questions on the forms is whether the challenger has read the entire book in question. Often, the answer is no.

“I did not read the entirety of the book [because] it goes against my conscience due to the vulgar content,” wrote a Bentonville resident in a complaint to the city’s library about “Gender Queer” in January 2022.

A Crawford County resident in October 2022 objected to “Pink, Blue, and You!: Questions for Kids about Gender Stereotypes” by Elise Gravel, saying it would “promote the lie of gender fluidity” and “hijack natural development of self identity in vulnerable children.”

Complainants often asked for these books to be removed from the library rather than relocated within it. Library directors said they have almost always kept challenged books in their original sections.

This backfired on the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library after librarians processed several complaint forms in 2021 and 2022, Ryals said.

“When we went through the process and didn’t remove those titles, to [challengers], it was just proof we were never going to take that process seriously,” she said.

Additionally, library directors said people with complaints about books rarely, if ever, fill out material reconsideration forms, and some systems had no challenge documents to provide when asked.

Rene Myers oversees the libraries in Scott and Sebastian counties, with the exception of the city of Fort Smith. She said library patrons occasionally seek to challenge books but do not fill out reconsideration forms after they learn how the formal challenge process works.

Patty Hector, who supervises Saline County’s two libraries, said she also has not received any reconsideration forms.

Jon Newcomb holds a copy of “All Boys Aren't Blue,” which he claims is pornographic, as he speaks to the Saline County Quorum Court on Monday evening. He spoke in favor of a resolution that aims to keep certain books out of the view of children. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Jon Newcomb holds a copy of “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, which he claims is pornographic, as he speaks to the Saline County Quorum Court on April 17, 2023. He spoke in favor of a resolution that aims to keep certain books out of the reach of children. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

People are more likely to air their opposition to certain library materials on social media or at local government meetings, according to multiple library directors, including Hector, who knows from recent experience.

Hector recognized several people at the April 17 Quorum Court meeting because they had recently signed up for library cards, she said. Those individuals held up books they considered inappropriate for children and urged the justices of the peace to recommend that the library system “relocate materials that are not subject matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children.”

The all-Republican quorum court passed the resolution with 11 votes for it after dozens of Saline County residents spoke for and against it. The court considered the resolution “proactive,” but the two members who voted against it said the court should have consulted local librarians beforehand.

Some supporters of the resolution said they plan to challenge several books under Act 372 and bring them before the quorum court, and Hector said she expects them to follow through.

She added that she was “furious” with the outcome of the meeting.

“When a court tells me that some material is either obscene or harmful to minors, I will definitely take it off the shelf, but I will not do that until somebody makes that decision, and it can’t just be somebody in the community,” Hector said. “It also can’t be a quorum court member.”

In Crawford County, the quorum court has also heard recent public opposition to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content in the county’s five library branches, and the Rogers Public Library received attention from conservative media last year for the availability of a sex education book aimed at middle schoolers. The online magazine The Federalist claimed the book “Sex Is a Funny Word” by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth explicitly “teaches kids to masturbate and affirms gender dysphoria.”

The library directors in both Crawford County and Rogers declined to comment for this story, citing potential harassment and other adverse consequences.

The Central Arkansas Library System board of directors voted last week to continue reviewing its legal options regarding the new law, including the possibility of challenging its constitutionality in court, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. CALS has 13 branches in Pulaski County and one in Perryville, hometown of Republican state Rep. Mary Bentley, one of the House co-sponsors of Act 372.

Other states have seen similar conservative-led pushes for “inappropriate” library content to be removed or relocated so children cannot access them. A county library system in Texas nearly closed in April due to a lawsuit over its refusal to remove books, some of which are about systemic racism, but administrators decided to keep the libraries open.

In late March, Missouri’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a budget proposal that would have cut funding from all libraries in the state, a response to pushback against a 2022 law that made it a misdemeanor for librarians or teachers to provide “explicit sexual material” to a student. A Senate committee restored the $4.5 million of library funding to the proposed budget in April.

‘Always worried’

Ryals said challenges to library content were rare before “the current political climate.” If someone had concerns about a book, librarians could address them with “informal conversations that don’t escalate to the point of a reconsideration request,” she said.

Part of the stress of managing the backlash against the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library was a flurry of public records requests from those mounting challenges against books, Ryals said. 

Hector said she has started to experience the same thing in Saline County.

Adams took over the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library in February 2022. She said she had hoped she could work out “compromises” with the challengers but soon realized they were not open to that.

The system’s collection development department has “not relaxed at all” and is “always worried about making the right choices” nearly six months after the campaign to cut the libraries’ funding succeeded, Adams said.

“They don’t want to self-censor, but they feel like sometimes they do it unintentionally because they don’t want to face repercussions for what they put on the shelves,” she said.

Adams and Hawkins both said they are trying to proactively educate their communities about what is and isn’t available in public libraries.

“I have to do so much PR about the issues and show that the library’s valuable that I can’t actually do my library work,” Adams said.

Hawkins said she is working to bolster the Arkansas River Valley libraries’ relationships with their four county judges and quorum courts before Act 372 goes into effect. The regional system has not received any written complaint forms, she said.

Meanwhile, Webb said the Garland County Library has had only 11 material reconsideration requests in 13 years and is not currently seeing any anti-library public sentiment.

In 2022, a Garland County resident asked the library to label all materials with LGBTQ+ characters or themes in the children’s department. Webb denied this request because it would “stigmatize a protected class of people,” which libraries are legally prohibited from doing, he said.

“Ultimately, the courts have determined that the onus is on the individual to screen materials they wish to avoid, not the other way around,” Webb wrote in his response to the requester.

The Fayetteville Public Library’s only challenge since the start of 2022 was from someone who did not live in the city or have a library card, both of which the library requires in order to consider a challenge, executive director David Johnson said.

Fayetteville librarians are nervous about the potential impact of the upcoming law, and Johnson said reassurance is hard to find while the law has not yet been applied. Even so, anyone with complaints about library content should come directly to him, he said.

“I told my staff, ‘Part of the goal of this is to convince you that you have been doing something wrong, and I want to assure you that you have not been doing anything wrong, so keep doing what you do,’” Johnson said.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.