Editor’s note: Rob Qualls is on the Board of Trustees for the Fayetteville Public Library. He submitted a public records request to the Faulkner County Library to learn more after Rep. Stephen Meeks shared on the House floor that he had challenged a library book that he felt was not appropriate for children.
In the House discussions of Senate Bill 81 — which would expose librarians to obscenity charges for checking out books that local elected officials considered obscene — there was a particular testimony that I wanted to address.
Rep. Stephen Meeks (R-Greenbriar) claimed that he found explicit materials at the Faulkner County Library where “5-year-olds” could get to them. He complained that the reconsideration process took too much time and the library director kept the books in circulation. Meeks pointed to this as justification for supporting SB81. He also mentioned that this was the genesis for the Craighead County ballot measure to cut its funding in half, despite Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) insisting that it was purely a financial issue.
Meeks challenged two books: “It’s Perfectly Normal” and “Sex — A Book for Teens.” Both are sex education books intended specifically for teens. While these books are listed in the “Juvenile Nonfiction Section,” I’m not able to confirm that these are easily accessible to young children. The Faulkner County Library, like most libraries, requires children younger than 6 to be supervised at all times, and for children 6-10 to have a parent or guardian in the building.
John McGraw, director of the Faulkner County Library, responded to Meek’s challenge. Here’s a full copy of McGraw’s response, which was obtained through FOIA.
“I have decided to retain the items in our collection,” McGraw wrote. “Arkansas has no standards for sex education and ranks at the bottom of public health categories including sexual activity by teenagers, teen birth rate, STD rate, and many others. The material is presented in an educational way rather than a prurient fashion.”
He also noted that there was no indication in Meek’s challenge forms that he even read the books in their entirety. As whole pieces, McGraw said that the books “can serve as a way for parents to begin to structure conversations with their children who are of an age to understand their bodies and appreciate the many risks of sexual health. The books emphasize abstinence as the only wholly safe behavior.”
McGraw also said that the books explain consent and abuse in a meaningful way that could protect children. He closes with a way to contact the chairman of the library’s Board of Trustees if Meeks objects to the decision and tastefully invites him to continue using the library.
Meeks did not appeal the decision. The new process proposed under SB81 would be identical, up until the appeal process. The difference being that instead of the appeal going to the Board of Trustees, it would now go to the Faulkner County Quorum Court. The same group that approved the Board of Trustees appointments.
The process worked as intended, albeit slower than everybody would like. McGraw said they hadn’t used the process in a long time, and it took time to train employees, solicit board feedback on the process, read the books in their entirety and make a determination. To me, this indicates how much time these challenges take.
Meeks couldn’t be bothered with reading the book or filling out the three questions on the form completely, but he chewed up many hours of the employees’ time reviewing books that have survived countless challenges before, have not been found to be obscene by courts and are in collections all over the country.
Another often quoted justification of SB81 is a lack of transparency in the current review process. We can see through Meeks’ experience that he received a full explanation and review, and he had an opportunity to appeal to an appointed board in a public meeting. He apparently wasn’t overly concerned about 5-year-olds accessing the books.
Please call the Senate Judiciary Committee and ask them to stop this unnecessary and potentially very costly bill. Then you can let Gov. Sarah Sanders know you’d like her to veto the bill. Our libraries are too important to let them be a pawn in the ongoing culture war.