A group of public libraries and supporters filed a federal lawsuit Friday to challenge a new state law that aims to censor what books children can get to in libraries and puts librarians in danger of criminal charges if they allow young people access to content deemed harmful.
The suit asks a federal judge to block the law and declare it unconstitutional, as a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
At issue is Act 372, passed by the state legislature and signed into law this year by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders. Under the law, librarians could be imprisoned for up to a year for making available materials that are “harmful to minors.”
The hubbub over library materials rose to a fever pitch across Arkansas this year, even before Act 372 goes into effect on August 1. In Saline County, a group put up a billboard accusing their local libraries of providing X-rated library books to children. The Saline County group created a website reviewing books with LGBTQ themes and making their case for why they think those books are inappropriate. An opposing group has put up two billboards to support the library.
In Crawford County, book challenges led to the removal of LGBT children’s books to the adults section, according to the lawsuit filed today. The library’s attorney later refused to return the books to their original section citing the children’s “innocence.”
Act 372 will require libraries to create “adults only” sections to segregate materials that are deemed harmful to minors, the lawsuit states.
The law also creates a uniform procedure by which citizens can challenge library materials. The lawsuit says this procedure violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution by imposing a “prior restraint” on constitutionally protected materials. Prior restraint occurs when governments limit speech before the speech occurs.
The suit also says this procedure is vague and lacks judicial review.
Under Act 372, book challengers can appeal rulings from library committees on whether books are appropriate or not to local elected bodies such as city boards or quorum courts. Those local officials would then have the power to remove books from the collection, making them unavailable for patrons.
The Fayetteville Public Library is listed first among 18 plaintiffs in the suit, which was filed today in the Fayetteville Division of the United States District Court.
The Central Arkansas Library System, which voted last week to join the suit, and the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library are the only other libraries listed as plaintiffs. CALS Executive Director Nate Coulter and Garland County Public Library Executive Director Adam Webb are named in their individual capacities.
The state’s prosecuting attorneys, including Pulaski County prosecutor Will Jones, are the defendants named in the case along with Crawford County and Crawford County Judge Chris Keith. Coulter said prosecutors were named as the defendants to prevent them from enforcing the law. State Attorney General Tim Griffin will provide the defense in the case, Coulter said.
The suit includes a section dedicated to Crawford County where the library book battle has already begun to rage. Last year, two residents alleged that the library director and her employees were “normalizing and equating homosexual and transexual lifestyles with heterosexual lifestyles,” the lawsuit states. The library announced early this year that it had “moved their LGBTQ children’s books out of the children’s section into a new area within their respective adult sections.”
The library refused to return the books to their original location with their attorney stating it was within its rights to “protect children from exposure to materials that might harm their innocence.”
Leta Caplinger, a Crawford County resident, is named a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed today.
The ACLU of Arkansas provided a statement on the lawsuit this afternoon:
The ACLU of Arkansas announced today a joint lawsuit against Arkansas’ newest censorship law, Act 372. The group challenging the law includes Fayetteville Public Library, Eureka Springs Carnegie Library, Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), various individual librarians and readers, Arkansas Library Association (ArLA), Advocates for All Arkansas Libraries (AAAL), Freedom to Read Foundation, Inc. (FTRF), several bookstores and publishing associations, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The lawsuit challenges sections 1 and 5 of Act 372, on the grounds that they violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The group’s lawsuit calls for the court to strike down parts of Act 372 as unconstitutional. They argue the law must be blocked in order to protect the rights to distribute, access, and engage with books and media that are protected by the First Amendment. Act 372 attempts to revive an old Arkansas law, which was previously declared unconstitutional after a very similar challenge to that law by bookstores, librarians, authors and the ACLU of Arkansas in 2004.
Section 1 of Act 372 would criminalize librarians providing material considered “harmful to minors,” with a penalty of up to a year in jail. This would force libraries and bookstores to segregate or even remove any such potential materials to avoid the risk of prosecution. Section 5 would require public libraries to create a review process for any material considered “inappropriate” – an undefined and unclear term – by an individual. If the library didn’t move the challenged material to an adults-only section, the individual could appeal to their local government for a “final” decision that does not provide for judicial review before any action.
Act 372 could lead Arkansas libraries to create “adult-only” areas and put librarians at risk of criminal charges if minors access those areas, or even to remove materials entirely if the library lacks space to house a separate “adult-only” area. It would restrict libraries and bookstores from freely offering books and other items due to the threat of criminal prosecution.
Act 372 was signed into law on March 31, 2023 by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders amidst a nationwide increase in book bans and censorship. It’s scheduled to take effect on Aug. 1, 2023 unless blocked by a court. Libraries, librarians, booksellers, and readers are taking action now to safeguard their constitutional rights from potential irreversible harm.
In the lawsuit, the group calls on the court to invalidate sections of Act 372, arguing the restrictions would infringe on First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech, including allowing librarians, booksellers, and publishers to distribute literature and media without fear of imprisonment.
Plaintiff Hayden Kirby, a 17-year-old high school student, said Act 372 not only limits her access to information, it also sends a message that her voice and choices are not valued. Her paternal grandmother was a librarian and her maternal grandmother was a teacher, so books and reading have played a critical role in her upbringing. Kirby attended a middle school located across the street from a library and stayed at the library every day after school while waiting for her parents to get off work.
“To restrict the spaces I’ve accessed freely throughout my life is outrageous to me. I want to fight for our rights to intellectual freedom and ensure that libraries remain spaces where young Arkansans can explore diverse perspectives. By joining this lawsuit, I hope to make a difference in preserving the rights of youth like me across the state,” she said.
Plaintiff Olivia Farrell retired in February 2019 after a long career in publishing. “As a supporter of CALS and an advocate for literacy, I am incredibly concerned about the implications of Act 372,” Farrell said. “It hinders our ability to make choices about the materials we read and places arbitrary limitations on our intellectual growth. By challenging this law, I hope to protect the rights of all Arkansans to access a diverse range of books and continue fostering a love for reading in our communities.”
Plaintiff Leta Caplinger has been a resident of Crawford County since 1997. “Libraries are more than just buildings filled with books; they are a window to the world and connect us to knowledge, diversity, and the power of thought,” Caplinger said.
“Act 372 threatens the very essence of what makes libraries special – the freedom to explore, to learn, and to grow. With this lawsuit, we stand against censorship and defend the fundamental right of every Arkansan to access information and ideas without barriers,” she added.
ACLU of Arkansas Executive Director Holly Dickson called Act 372 “an Arctic breeze on librarians across Arkansas,” which attempts to push them to stifle freedom of thought and expression.
“It empowers politicians to play thought police, perilously threatening our librarians — our guardians of information — with criminal consequences for doing their jobs,” Dickson said. “Despite this hostility, our librarians continue to showcase remarkable courage. They stand resolute, protecting the integrity of their profession and Arkansans’ rights. Arkansas needs to foster open minds, not close off books.”
“The law makes no sense,” she added. “To put materials in a special section is to put a neon sign to attract young minds to the section. Trying to jail librarians for maintaining access to materials protected by the First Amendment is an attempt to censor and suppress us all. We must resist.”
The ACLU of Arkansas has a longstanding commitment to defending First Amendment rights, including the freedom of speech, access to information, and the right to receive and peruse materials without censorship. By joining this lawsuit, the organization aims to ensure that Act 372 does not infringe upon the constitutional rights of individuals and to advocate for the principles of free expression and the open exchange of ideas in Arkansas.
The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. View a copy of the complaint here: https://bit.ly/43nplbG