LITTLE ROCK -- Libraries and local governments across the state may soon be facing book challenges after the state House passed a bill Wednesday that would allow parents to contest the "appropriateness of material" for children in public and school libraries.
Senate Bill 81 also strikes down a defense from the state code that protects librarians from prosecution under obscenity laws and creates a criminal offense of "furnishing a harmful item to a minor." The bill passed with 56 votes in favor, 25 against and eight legislators voting present, and it will return to the Senate to be voted for concurrence due to a House amendment.
The bill's sponsor in the House, Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, said the bill will "not get rid of classic literature" and would not "send all your librarians to jail," and he asked his fellow legislators to debate the bill during the session.
"I think we don't debate bills enough, and we pass some bad stuff out of here because of it," he said.
Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, was the only legislator to speak in opposition to the bill, noting the bill could leave books like "The Catcher in the Rye," "The Great Gatsby" or "To Kill a Mockingbird" restricted.
"Have you ever thought about that there may be material that doesn't violate the obscenity law, but may be viewed as harmful by someone who disagrees with the subject, the topic or the storyline?" she asked.
"This is highly subjective on each case. I also want you to think about this. What happens when someone challenges a book that talks about God and Jesus, and it gets challenged and/or banned because someone didn't agree with the content? I think many of us would lose our minds if that happened," she said.
"We haven't even considered challenge processes going through our quorum courts and our city councils. This will bog down our local quorum courts and city councils and upset the system of checks and balances."
She also noted that Republicans are known to be in favor of local control, yet this bill takes that away "because of a few bad actors."
"Because of these few bad actors, we are willing to criminalize and harm librarians," she said. "Oh, and teachers because if you didn't realize teachers might have a book in their room, and it would capture them also.
"I guess the next step is for us to tell parents that they can't buy phones for their children until they're 18 because, if you didn't know, they can search anything and everything on those things today. Do I think that is good? No, of course I don't, but we can't regulate in the lives of Arkansans. At some point, we have to stop with the government overreach."
Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, said that he took a challenge to the librarian at the Faulkner County Library approximately 18 months ago that he heard back on last week and was unsuccessful.
"You and I, whenever we make requests of any state or government entity, we generally get a response within a week or two," he said. "Something reasonable. Why did it take a year and a half for me to get a response on it? And the response that I got from my librarian was, 'Because of your concern, we did increase our review process.' Then he went on to say that 'I have reviewed the books, and I have decided that we're going to keep these books.' And not only that, he doubled down and bought two more updated copies with even more explicit material to put in our library."
Rep. Ryan Rose, R-Van Buren, said he ran for office to protect children, "so if this would protect one child from having their mind or their eyes exposed to explicit content that would warp their view, then I'm for it."
Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, said that the Legislature is "in a culture war."
"We have been silent way too long," she said. "I wish we didn't have to do this bill. I wish to goodness that 5-year-olds were not shown pornography. I wish the pornography that is in the Conway schools was not there."
Gonzales said the bill will not create a burden for the local legislators on quorum courts or city councils.
"In fact, JPs are already over the libraries," he said. "It's their responsibility as much as it is anyone else's to take care of what's in their local libraries. They should be doing that."
The House also passed three resolutions by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, to recognize three Lake Hamilton athletic teams.
Resolution 1045 recognizes Coby Qualls for winning the state diving championship, the first diving title for Lake Hamilton, and recognizes the Wolves' swim and dive team for placing in multiple events at the Class 5A State Championship in February.
Resolution 1046 recognizes members of Lake Hamilton's wrestling team for winning individual titles at the Class 5A State Wrestling Championship, including Justin Crutchmer, Izic Clenney, Adeline Jackson and Raylee Hunter. Crutchmer won his fourth state title, becoming the only wrestler in the state to win four titles in four weight classes.
Resolution 1047 recognizes the Lady Wolves track and field team for winning the Class 5A State Indoor Track and Field Championships.