Judge denies motions in suit over Arkansas county’s library practices

Plaintiffs against Crawford County had sought injunction; county sought to dismiss case

By: - September 12, 2023 9:11 pm
The "social section" in Crawford County Library's Van Buren branch (Screenshot from court documents)

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

A lawsuit against Crawford County officials over the placement of library books with LGBTQ+ themes remained active Tuesday after a federal judge in Fayetteville denied motions from both the plaintiffs and the county.

Crawford County residents and library patrons Rebecka Virden, Nina Prater, Samantha Rowlett and their minor children 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. Their lawsuit objects to “the stigmatization of certain books by placing a prominent color label on them and moving the books to a separate ‘social section’” in each library.

In Tuesday’s ruling, U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes denied two motions filed by the plaintiffs and the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case.

The plaintiffs had requested a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. They also had asked the court to accept findings made by another judge in a separate lawsuit over Arkansas’ library obscenity law, Act 372 of 2023. In that suit, U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks in late July temporarily blocked parts of the law that would change how public libraries statewide handle controversial materials.

Holmes denied both of the Crawford County residents’ requests. The plaintiffs haven’t shown that “injunctive relief is appropriate at this time,” the judge wrote in his 16-page ruling.

 “To be clear, the Court is not saying it will be impossible for Plaintiffs to show their entitlement to injunctive relief at some later stage of this case, nor is the Court saying it believes Plaintiffs cannot prove their constitutional rights have been violated. The Court is simply saying that if Plaintiffs ultimately prove a violation of their constitutional rights, then they will need to request injunctive relief that is much more narrowly tailored to remedying the harms they have suffered than the relief which was requested in their amended complaint and in their motion,” Holmes wrote.

Regarding the plaintiffs’ motion that he accept Brooks’ findings in the suit against Act 372, Holmes wrote that the findings “were inherently provisional” and that recognizing them as “actually true” would be inappropriate at this stage of the litigation.

Holmes also denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case. Crawford County had argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue, but the judge disagreed.

The plaintiffs have standing on First Amendment grounds “because one can reasonably infer” from their allegations that they “have been directly, negatively, and concretely impacted by the [county’s library] policy,” Holmes wrote.

“That does not necessarily mean the County’s policy violates the First Amendment. But it does mean Plaintiffs have the right to ask this Court to decide whether the County’s policy violates the First Amendment,” the judge said.

Holmes also rejected the county’s argument that there is no judicial precedent guaranteeing a citizen the right to receive information as well as access it. The county also argued that, even if there is such a right, the plaintiffs haven’t been deprived of it because the books haven’t been removed, just relocated.

“There are other ways a person can be deprived of access to information besides outright removal,” Holmes said.

The plaintiffs also claimed that the county restricted access to the books for religious reasons. The burden, the judge wrote, is on the county at this stage to show the plaintiffs cannot prove their claim that the county’s actions violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion.

All the plaintiffs “need to show to avoid dismissal at this early stage,” Holmes wrote, is that there is a plausible claim the county has restricted access to information for political or partisan motives and there is “a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” supporting that claim.



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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.