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Federal suit challenging Arkansas’ library obscenity law set for trial in October 2024

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Federal suit challenging Arkansas’ library obscenity law set for trial in October 2024

Dec 01, 2023 | 5:53 pm ET
By Tess Vrbin
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Federal suit challenging Arkansas’ library obscenity law set for trial in October 2024
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The "social section" in Crawford County Library's Van Buren branch (Screenshot from court documents)

The trial in the federal lawsuit challenging the Arkansas law that would change how libraries handle controversial material is set to begin in mid-October next year, according to court documents filed Friday.

Eighteen plaintiffs sued the state in June over 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.”

U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks temporarily blocked two sections of Act 372 in July, shortly before the law was scheduled to go into effect.

Brooks and the attorneys for both sides agreed this week that the trial, in which Brooks will decide whether to permanently block the law, will be held within a two-week window starting at 9 a.m. on Oct. 15 at the federal courthouse in Fayetteville. The trial is expected to last three days, according to court documents.

If a scheduling conflict in the court system forces the trial to be rescheduled, it will start in mid-December 2024.

The 18 plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit in June include libraries, bookstores, advocacy groups and individual library patrons. The plaintiffs have argued that Act 372 unfairly restricts librarians’ speech and is unclear about how librarians can avoid the criminal charges put forth in the law.

Library employees who “knowingly” distribute obscene material or inform others of how to obtain it would risk conviction of a Class D felony, Act 372 states. Knowingly possessing obscene material would risk conviction of a Class A misdemeanor.

This portion of the law would force librarians to “err on the side of staying out of jail” by creating a segregated section of the library, removing certain books from the library entirely or banning minors from the premises, John Adams, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, told Brooks in July.

Act 372 would also require a committee of library staff, selected by head librarians and “representative of diverse viewpoints,” to be the first to review library materials challenged on the basis of “appropriateness.”

If a challenger disagrees with the library committee’s decision, city or county elected officials will have the final say on where material is placed.

Brooks wrote in his temporary injunction ruling that the two challenged portions of Act 372 could lead to arbitrary interpretation and “content-based restrictions” that violate the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

Who is challenging Act 372 in federal court?

Eighteen entities, according to court documents, are plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit against Arkansas’ law changing how libraries handle content challenges.

  1. Central Arkansas Library System
  2. Fayetteville Public Library
  3. The Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library
  4. Garland County Library executive director Adam Webb
  5. CALS executive director Nate Coulter
  6. Arkansas Library Association
  7. Advocates for All Arkansas Libraries
  8. The Authors Guild, the oldest and largest professional organization for writers in the United States
  9. The American Booksellers’ Association
  10. The Association of American Publishers
  11. The Freedom to Read Foundation
  12. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
  13. WordsWorth Books, an independent bookstore in Little Rock
  14. Pearl’s Books, an independent bookstore in Fayetteville
  15. Hayden Kirby, a 17-year-old CALS patron and a student at Little Rock Central High School
  16. Jennie Kirby, Hayden’s mother
  17. Olivia Farrell, an adult CALS patron
  18. Leta Caplinger, an adult Crawford County Library System patron

Supporters of Act 372 have said the policy is necessary to keep “pornographic” content out of children’s reach. Opponents of the law have said it will be used to reduce access to content that reflects the general public, including the LGBTQ+ community.

The plaintiffs challenging Act 372 are also suing Crawford County and Crawford County Judge Chris Keith, in addition to the prosecuting attorneys in each of Arkansas’ 28 judicial districts.

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

The Crawford County Library System moved children’s books with LGBTQ+ topics to a segregated “social section,” accessible only to adults, at all five branches in December 2022 after county residents objected to their availability at multiple quorum court meetings. County officials have cited Act 372 as a reason to keep the books segregated. 

In July, the Crawford County defendants asked Brooks to dismiss them from the case; Brooks denied their motion.

The county and Keith, along with the county’s library board and interim library director, are facing a separate lawsuit from three parents who argue that the “social sections” violate the First Amendment. A federal judge in Fort Smith denied the parents’ request for an injunction in September.