AR Briefly

Arkansas governor signs law aimed at holding libraries accountable for ‘obscene’ material

By: - March 31, 2023 4:59 pm

Sen. Dan Sullivan (bottom right), R-Jonesboro, presents Senate Bill 81 to the Senate on March 28, 2023. The bill passed the Senate with a party-line vote and was sent to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ desk. She signed it into law March 30. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

The distribution of content by school and public libraries that community members consider “obscene” could lead to criminal liability for Arkansas librarians under a law Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed Thursday.

Senate Bill 81 adds 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 new law removes schools and public libraries from the part of existing statute that previously exempted them from prosecution “for disseminating a writing, film, slide, drawing, or other visual reproduction that is claimed to be obscene.”

The law allows people 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 hearing the complainant’s case in a public meeting, 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 the county judge or the county quorum court.

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.

Opponents of the legislation have said it will 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. They’ve also said it does not account for children’s ability to choose what they do and don’t read.

Senate Bill 81 was one of several introduced this year by Republicans with the stated intent of protecting children from sexual content. Other such bills include proposed restrictions on drag performances and which bathrooms transgender adults can use.

The bill passed the Senate twice along party lines but faced bipartisan opposition in the House, where the Judiciary Committee initially rejected it. The committee later approved the bill after after adopting an amendment to the text that replaced the word “removal” with “relocation” several times.

House members said that the bill infringes on local control of libraries and that legislative bodies such as school boards and county quorum courts should not be tasked with judicial decisions.

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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.