Arkansas committee approves amended bill to hold libraries accountable for ‘obscene’ material
The House Judiciary Committee discusses Senate Bill 81 on March 9, 2023. (Screenshot)
A proposed Arkansas law that would open the door to criminal liability for the distribution of “obscene” content by school and public libraries passed a legislative panel and will go to the House floor after being amended.
Senate Bill 81 would add the loaning of library materials to the statute governing the possession and distribution of obscene material. Arkansas’ definition of obscenity is “that to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest,” with prurient meaning overtly sexual.
The bill would remove schools and public libraries from the part of Arkansas law that exempts them from prosecution “for disseminating a writing, film, slide, drawing, or other visual reproduction that is claimed to be obscene.”
The House Judiciary Committee rejected the bill Tuesday with a split voice vote after three hours of discussion and testimony. The committee approved the bill Thursday with another split voice vote after adopting an amendment to the text that replaced the word “removal” with “relocation” several times.
Material that has been challenged and determined inappropriate for minors would have to be moved to a section of the library that children cannot access, rather than simply removed from the library, said Rep. Justin Gonzales (R-Okolona), the bill’s House sponsor.
Rep. Andrew Collins (D-Little Rock) said he saw a problem with this.
“If there’s not an 18 and up section [in the library], effectively you are going to have to remove it,” he said.
The bill would allow anyone to “challenge the appropriateness” of school or public libraries’ offerings and have them reviewed by a committee of five to seven people selected by school principals or head librarians. The committee would vote on whether to remove the material after a public hearing, and a complainant may appeal the committee’s decision if the majority votes “No.”
Appeals at school libraries would go to the school board for a final decision, and appeals at public libraries would go to city councils, the county judge or the county quorum court.
Committee members said Tuesday and Thursday that legislative bodies should not be tasked with judicial decisions.
Employees of public or school libraries that deliberately distribute obscene material or inform others of how to obtain it would risk conviction for a Class D felony, the bill states. Knowingly possessing obscene material would risk conviction of a Class A misdemeanor.
Twenty people, including several librarians, spoke against the bill Tuesday. Seven people spoke for it.
The bill’s opponents have said it would be used to restrict access to certain subject matter — including sex education and LGBTQ issues — and prevent children of diverse backgrounds and identities from seeing themselves represented in books.
Rep. Ashley Hudson (D-Little Rock) asked Gonzales if books that have been relocated would be available if students sought them out for class projects or assignments.
Gonzales said relocated books would not be accessible to children at all.
Senate Bill 81 previously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate. It will return to the Senate if it passes the full House.
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