Ruling against Arkansas library law supports separate case in Crawford County, plaintiffs say

The defendants should not be allowed to relitigate matters that resulted in a previous ruling against them, plaintiffs said in two Wednesday court filings

By: - August 2, 2023 2:19 pm

(Getty Images)

A federal judge’s ruling against Arkansas’ library censorship law supports three Crawford County parents’ legal case against their local library system, the plaintiffs said in two court filings Wednesday.

Rebecka Virden, Nina Prater, Samantha Rowlett and their minor children are all Crawford County residents and library patrons. They sued the county judge, quorum court, library board and interim library director in May, alleging “unlawful censorship of materials,” specifically children’s books with LGBTQ+ topics, in the county’s five library branches.

Crawford County and its county executive, Chris Keith, are also defendants in a separate federal lawsuit against portions of Act 372 of 2023, which would alter libraries’ material reconsideration processes and create criminal liability for librarians who distribute content that some consider “obscene” or “harmful to minors.”

On Saturday, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks blocked the challenged sections of the law, three days before its effective date.

Virden, Prater and Rowlett asked the federal judge handling their lawsuit, P.K. Holmes, to consider Brooks’ findings as evidence to support their case.

One of the blocked sections of Act 372 would require a committee of library staff, selected by head librarians, to be the first to review library materials challenged on the basis of “appropriateness.” If a challenger disagrees with the committee’s decision, city or county elected officials will have the final say on where material is placed.

The “social section” in Crawford County Library’s Van Buren branch (Screenshot from court documents)

The Crawford County Library System moved children’s books with LGBTQ+ topics to a segregated “social section” at all five locations in December 2022. The system’s then-director said this was a “compromise” after community members objected to the books’ availability at multiple quorum court meetings.

The “social sections” are proof of how Crawford County interprets the materials challenge provision of Act 372, Brooks wrote in his ruling.

Additionally, Brooks acknowledged the statement in the initial complaint filed against Act 372 that “Crawford County’s library board, whose members are appointed by County Judge Keith, interpreted Section 5 to mean they were permitted to ‘segregate constitutionally protected materials’ on the basis of viewpoint alone.”

These findings mean Crawford County and Keith should not be allowed to relitigate matters that resulted in a ruling against them in a separate case, Virden, Prater, Rowlett and their attorneys said in their Wednesday court filings.

“Both of these findings prove that Crawford County has engaged in, and continues to engage in, viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment,” they said.

Attorneys for the Crawford County defendants argued at a July 25 hearing that the 18 plaintiffs against Act 372, which include a Crawford County resident and library patron, had no standing to sue them in addition to the state.

In a ruling separate from the one granting the injunction on Saturday, Brooks denied the Crawford County defendants’ request to dismiss the case against them alone.

“Their lead argument is that Plaintiffs have no First Amendment right to receive information in a public library and that Crawford County may legally censor and deprive the public access to material at any time and for any reason,” Brooks wrote.

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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.