A punishingly puritanical bill that creates a new librarian crime and tags local-level elected officials to judge what is and isn’t appropriate for library shelves passed the Arkansas House Wednesday.
But the bill didn’t slide through as easily as other right-wing legislation has this session, perhaps signaling that some Republican legislators are growing weary of passing bad bills into law just because they can. This one passed with 56 yeahs, 25 nays, 11 not voting and 8 voting present, which is effectively a No.
In presenting Senate Bill 81 by Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro), Rep. Justin Gonzalez (R-Okolona) said he knew of some sexy content floating around in libraries, but declined to provide the specifics.
“I’ve had reports that some of these things are happening in Arkansas. I can’t name specific cases. But I don’t want to wait until harmful or obscene material is being provided in my district to address this. The time is now,” he said.
Sullivan’s SB81 1A affront hacks away at fundamental freedoms to read, teach and learn. It sets up new pathways for librarians and teachers to be prosecuted for sharing information, and it potentially scares them off from making available the materials they normally would out of fear of getting in trouble with the law.
The bill initially stalled in committee after librarians fought back, but Sullivan brought it back to life.
Here’s the title of the bill, to give you an idea of its scope: “An Act to Amend the Law Concerning Libraries and Obscene Materials Made Available to Minors; To Amend the Law Concerning the Possession, Sale, Distribution, or Furnishing of Obscene Materials; To Create the Offense of Furnishing a Harmful Item to a Minor; To Amend the Criminal Code in Relation to Obscene Materials Loaned by a Library; To Allow a Parent or Legal Guardian of a Minor to Access the Minor’s Library Records; To Provide for a Civil Cause of Action Against Governmental Entities That Possess, Sell, or Distribute Obscene Materials; To Amend the Law Concerning the Process for Challenging Materials Included in a Library; And for Other Purposes.”
Republican Rep. DeAnn Vaught of Horatio gave the fullest argument of the day against SB81. Whatever happened to local control, that Republican darling of a concept that still gets occasional lip service around the Capitol but sees no action? Vaught wanted to know.
“Since when do we think we need to come down here and fix things on a state level when we have people at the local level who are dealing with it?” she asked.
All public schools and libraries already have policies in place that allow people to challenge materials they think aren’t appropriate, so this piece of legislation is redundant, she said.
It also sets puff-chested, self-righteous moralists up for unintended consequences. Under SB81, someone who challenges a book and doesn’t like the decision made by a librarian or library board will be able to appeal that decision to the school board, quorum court or city board. Those bodies, who aren’t trained to be arbiters of constitutionally protected speech, will decide what materials to keep and what to discard.
“What happens when someone challenges a book that talks about God and Jesus? It gets challenged or banned because someone doesn’t agree with the content. I think many of us would lose our minds if that happened,” Vaught said.
She also took issue with the assumption inherent in this bill that librarians are out there trying to slide kids obscene books.
“When will we stop with the message that all teachers, all superintendents and all librarians now have all these agendas to hurt our children?” Vaught asked.
Vaught made a similar plea recently about the Arkansas LEARNS school privatization bill, which infantilizes public school teachers by taking some topics off limits for classroom discussion and claims teachers have used their position to indoctrinate students. Vaught voted for Arkansas LEARNS anyway, even though she cried about it in committee. She’s not going along with SB81, though.
“We can’t regulate everything in the lives of Arkansans. At some point we have to stop with the government overreach,” she said. “I do have big concerns when legislators try to control everyone’s choices … Either we’re for freedom or we aren’t.”
Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbrier) is in the not-for-freedom crowd on this one. Meeks said he found explicit materials in the Faulkner County Library where a 5-year-old could get to them. He challenged the materials and seemed pretty mad to report that the librarian who reviewed his complaint determined the material was in fact just fine. Under SB81, Meeks would be able to take his complaint up the chain to the Faulkner County Quorum Court for those guys to make the call.
Rep. Ryan Rose (R-Van Buren) suggested that if this bill saves one child from seeing genitals or going woke, the attack on free speech will be worth it. “If this would protect one child from having their mind and their eyes exposed to explicit content that would warp their views then I’m for it,” he said.
Rep. Cindy Crawford (R-Fort Smith) took up Rose’s save-the-children theme, calling on fellow lawmakers to pass this bill so we can protect young people from enduring psychological damage at the library. She said sexually explicit materials are openly available in a library “across the river” that she did not identify by name. Those librarians must be stopped, she suggested.
“This kind of material is psychologically damaging to children, creating permanent and psychological problems for our next generation,” Crawford said.
Don’t worry, Gonzales said. This bill is not going to send librarians to prison or ban any books. Librarians have to knowingly provide obscene materials to minors before they can get in trouble, he explained.
Asking local governmental bodies to take on the job of deciding what materials are appropriate for libraries will take extra man hours, Rep. Andrew Collins (D-Little Rock) noted. Won’t that cost money?
Gonzalez said employees already on the clock can take this on, or it could be farmed out to volunteers.
No Arkansas Capitol watchers will be surprised to learn that Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) came on strong for this one, lobbing quite an accusation at some poor school librarian in Conway.
“We are in a culture war. We have been silent for way too long,” Bentley said. “I wish to goodness 5-year-olds weren’t shown pornography. I wish pornography wasn’t in Conway schools and that pornography wasn’t approved by the library specialist.”
SB81 has now passed both the House and Senate, but an amendment made on the House side means it has to go back to the Senate for them to concur on a change that calls on librarians to relocate inappropriate materials to where children can’t get to them. The bill initially called for those materials to be removed completely.
In other business, the House voted down an attempt by Rep. Jay Richardson (D-Fort Smith) to help non-citizens obtain drivers licenses. Richardson said he had people in his district working through the sometimes decades-long process to get a green card or full citizenship, and he wanted to help them in the interim.
“I’ve got members of my community who have been in my community for years, following the process, and have been unable to drive. One man, it took 25 years to get a green card. I want people to drive, drive safely and get insurance,” Richardson said.
Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Elm Springs) spoke against the bill, saying it could help people who come to the country illegally.
The House also passed a bill requiring people collecting unemployment to show proof that they’ve made at least five work search contacts per week to be eligible to collect their checks. Those include things like interviews, submitting a resume or going to a job fair. The current law requires only two.