Arkansas senator hopes to defund library advocacy group, which is not a state-funded agency

Arkansas Library Association’s president declined invitation to a legislative hearing due to the group’s participation in a lawsuit against the state

By: - October 24, 2023 6:28 pm

Arkansas Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, discusses his opposition to the American Library Association during the Joint Performance Review committee meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023 (Screenshot courtesy of Arkansas Legislature).

An Arkansas state senator said Tuesday he hopes the state will withhold funding from a library advocacy organization — a group that does not receive state funds, according to its president.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, has been critical of the Arkansas Library Association (ArLA), the state’s chapter of the American Library Association. Both organizations advocate for public libraries and promote professional development for librarians.

The Arkansas Legislature’s Joint Performance Review committee scheduled a discussion about ArLA, at Sullivan’s request, for its Tuesday meeting. ArLA president Carol Coffey, who is also the Patron Experience and Library Analytics Coordinator for the Central Arkansas Library System, declined the committee’s invitation to speak at the meeting.

Coffey told the Arkansas Advocate she declined because ArLA is currently one of 18 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the state. The plaintiffs are challenging Act 372 of 2023, which Sullivan sponsored in the Legislature earlier this year.

Federal judge temporarily blocks two sections of Arkansas’ library obscenity law

In July, a federal judge temporarily blocked the portions of Act 372 that would alter libraries’ material reconsideration processes and create criminal liability for librarians who distribute content that some consider “obscene” or “harmful to minors.”

Sullivan told Joint Performance Review on Tuesday that he was “disappointed” by Coffey’s decision not to attend the meeting and took it to mean ArLA does not consider itself accountable to the state.

“If they want to be independent of the state and decline all state dollars, that’s fine with me,” Sullivan said.

Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, mentioned that Joint Performance Review has the power to issue subpoenas and suggested that the committee do so in response to ArLA “thumbing their nose at the General Assembly.”

Sullivan said he plans to withhold funding to ArLA until a representative appears before Joint Performance Review or the Joint Budget Committee.

But the Arkansas Library Association does not receive state funding and never has, Coffey said. Local libraries receive public funds, and many are ArLA members, but this membership has not determined libraries’ receipt of public funds in the past, she said.

She also said ArLA “will take advice on” how to deal with a subpoena from Joint Performance Review if there is one.

“We are a nonprofit trade association,” Coffey said. “We are not a state agency.”

Statewide and nationwide library debate

Sullivan said he had hoped to talk to Coffey about ArLA’s affiliation with the American Library Association, which has been a target of conservative ire nationwide. State libraries in some Republican-led states, including Missouri and Texas, cut ties with the organization earlier this year.

The American Library Association provides training, resources and occasional help securing federal grant money to public libraries. Conservatives claim the organization has a political agenda and forces content about sexual activity and LGBTQ+ topics onto children.

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In June, at the right-wing National Association of Christian Lawmakers’ annual conference in Virginia, Sullivan said Arkansas should “eliminate all the funding for public libraries that have the American Library Association in their policy” during the 2025 legislative session.

He said Tuesday that he has problems with some of the American Library Association’s “resolutions” regarding “social justice, the Second Amendment, abortion, white supremacy” and Critical Race Theory, which is typically not taught in Arkansas’ K-12 schools but is prohibited by the LEARNS Act, a wide-ranging 2023 education law.

The American Library Association’s director called herself a Marxist in a 2022 tweet, which Sullivan and other conservatives have cited as a reason to denounce the association.

In an interview earlier this month, Sullivan said another problem with the association in his view is that it “takes the position that no material should be barred from anyone regardless of their age.”

The position he referenced comes from the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which states: “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” Both supporters and opponents of Act 372 repeatedly quoted this statement in legislative hearings earlier this year.

Coffey declined to comment on Sullivan’s statements about the American Library Association and ArLA.

Supporters of Act 372 and the relocation or removal of certain library content have said no one under 18 should have access to content regarding sexual activity or LGBTQ+ topics, calling it “indoctrination.” Opponents say restricting access to this content is censorship.

The library system in Sullivan’s district, the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library, saw voters cut its funding in half last year after protests over an LGBTQ+ book display and a transgender author’s visit to the library within the previous couple of years.

Saline County Judge fires library director after months of debate over children’s access to books

This year, Saline County became the primary battleground over what content children can access in public libraries. Patty Hector, Saline County Library’s director since 2016, refused to relocate books about racism, sex education and LGBTQ+ topics after the county quorum court recommended she do so in April.

Two weeks ago, Saline County Judge Matt Brumley fired Hector, less than two months after county officials gave him some power to hire and fire library staff.

Additionally, Crawford County is facing two lawsuits, including the one against Act 372, after the local library system moved children’s books with LGBTQ+ topics to a segregated “social section” accessible only to adults.

In the other lawsuit, three parents argue that these sections violate the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. A federal judge denied the parents’ request for an injunction in September.

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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.

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