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Panel OKs amended library bill

by James Leigh | March 10, 2023 at 4:03 a.m.
Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, listens after asking a question about SB81, a bill to amend the law concerning libraries and obscene materials, during the House Judiciary Committee meeting on Tuesday at the state Capitol in Little Rock. - Photo by Thomas Metthe of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

LITTLE ROCK -- Librarians across the state are one step closer to losing a defense from criminal prosecution for distributing obscene material after Senate Bill 81 was cleared by the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The bill, which is also intended to allow parents to challenge the "appropriateness of material" for children in public and school libraries, passed via voice vote with several legislators expressing their dissent. The bill will go before the full House next week.

Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, introduced an amendment to the bill to resolve some of the issues the 20-member committee raised during discussion and the question-and-answer periods Tuesday that led to the committee rejecting a "do pass" motion after nearly three hours of testimony and discussion.

No outside testimony was allowed by the committee in Thursday's session.

The most significant change brought by the amendment was to eliminate all mention of books being removed from the library and to have them "relocated" to an area "that is not accessible to minors," according to the amendment.

Rep. Jay Richardson, D-Fort Smith, asked if school libraries would be required to remove items from their collection since they would have students younger than 18.

"They just have to make it not available to the minors," Gonzales responded. "They can keep the books in the library. Say if a teacher or faculty or someone over 18 was there at the school and wanted access to it, they could still have it there but not accessible to minors."

Rep. Andrew Collins, D-Little Rock, asked how school libraries would be able to retain those items since they do not necessarily have an "18 and up section."

"They can keep them behind the desk or something," Gonzales said. "I don't know how they would want to handle that, but it'd be up to them."

Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, asked if minors would be allowed to access books in those restricted areas, noting items like "Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley, "Beloved" by Toni Morrison, or "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker are being targeted by groups wanting to ban books.

"If a book is restricted, and the student needs to access it, can they access it?" she asked, explaining a title might be required for a class or project.

"No," Gonzales responded simply.

After the amendment was approved by the committee, Rep. Jeremiah Moore, R-Clarendon, reiterated a question he asked during Tuesday's discussion of the bill.

"Ultimately who decides what is restricted and what is not, what is appropriate and what is not?" he asked.

Gonzales said the decision would rest on the "city council, quorum court or school board."

"If someone decides to file a lawsuit or whatever against the library or librarian, then that's a judicial process," he said.

"A prosecutor would have to press charges and then the judge would ultimately decide whether that's obscene material or harmful to children."

Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said she was concerned about legislative bodies in cities and counties across the state making judicial determinations.

"The books that Rep. Hudson was asking about, what books end up on these lists -- while that may not be your intent, and I believe you that it isn't -- the fact is there are quorum courts and city councils around the state that may disagree with you, and books just like that may well and likely end up on this list," she said.

"Because I think that these decisions, that criminal penalties need to be doled out and defined by courts."

Print Headline: Panel OKs amended library bill


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