Sen. Dan Sullivan‘s bill to give local elected officials the power to ban books and to make librarians and teachers criminally liable if they allow minors access to materials that include “nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic
abuse” successfully made its way through an Arkansas Senate committee Monday, despite the room full of librarians who showed up to speak against it.
Senate Bill 81 classifies such materials as harmful to minors and creates a new crime, making it a misdemeanor for any adults, including teachers and librarians, to knowingly allow access to such things.
It also seemingly grants the power of judicial review to city boards and county quorum courts. Anyone who disagrees with a library board’s decision to not ban a book would be able to appeal to the city or county government, who would be then empowered to decide what materials stay in libraries and which have to go.
A far-right conservative who was instrumental in chopping funding to the Jonesboro library system in half after a flap over an anodyne Pride Month display in the children’s section, Sullivan has taken up the torch from the satanic panic crowd of the ’90s. But instead of wizards and witchcraft, Sullivan and Co. are verklempt about S-E-X, especially the self-love, out-of-wedlock and homosexual kinds. SB81 is only one item on a full menu of culture war bills conservative lawmakers are bouncing through the Arkansas Capitol this session. Other culture war bills seek to erase affirmative action protections and ban trans children from using the school bathrooms that correspond with their gender.
Sullivan said that with this library bill, he aims to create a consistent appeals process for parents who find objectionable materials in schools or libraries and seek to have those materials removed completely. His bill also removes the obscenity law exclusion currently in effect for librarians and teachers, whose jobs often entail the dissemination of information on biology, religion, history and other human reproduction-adjacent topics that could conceivably be easily misconstrued.
Supporters of the bill equated books and other materials that include sexual content with cigarettes, guns and alcohol. Sullivan said we have a duty to shield children from all of these things.
“I don’t want to micromanage libraries,” Sullivan said, launching the room full of librarians into peals of laughter. Committee Chairman Gary Stubblefield did not like this, and threatened to kick them out if they laughed again.
In what’s become the standard pattern in the Senate Judiciary Committee meetings, Republicans barrel at full speed to approve their culture war bills, while Democrats Clarke Tucker of Little Rock and Stephanie Flowers of Pine Bluff put up a fight.
The 23 people who showed up to testify on the bill were all limited to one minute at the microphone. That’s a shame, because we could have watched Moms for Liberty member Gloria Mortin read her juicy excerpts all day. Mortin read snippets from books she said were inappropriate for young eyes, but available to them in public and school libraries. Mortin complained about passages on anal sex, oral sex, hand jobs, blow jobs and group masturbation, and asked lawmakers to pass this bill to help keep kids from this kind of spicy content. She seemed pretty agitated about it all.
Up next was Adam Webb, Garland County Library director, who pointed out that our judicial system has long established that you can’t judge a book on colorful excerpts alone. He said recent amendments to the bill that make it less likely he will be arrested for doing his job make it better, but he noted the bill opens up libraries to having to conduct endless time-consuming reviews of their content whenever anyone files a complaint.
A mom from Cabot said librarians should never have been exempted from obscenity laws, and she objects to her 14-year-old having access to “A Handmaid’s Tale” in the school library. The mom told committee members she is also upset that her 11-year-old could theoretically go to a library and check out “This Book is Gay,” one of the titles that’s topping banned books lists in recent years. “Unless you want to educate your child on how to have boy-on-boy sex or girl-on-girl sex, there is no educational value,” she said.
A number of opponents to the bill, including Sen. Flowers, suggested that parents should be the ones to police what books their kids read, not the government. Sen. Alan Clark, a Lonsdale Republican, took offense.
“Thank you for telling me how to parent,” he quipped.
The bill passed, with Tucker, Flowers and Republican Sen. Ben Gilmore of Crossett voting no.
The bill now goes to the full Senate for a vote.