Schools and Learning

In Arkansas, book banners suffer another setback

  Rhys Long

Another loss for the book banners: U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks has issued an injunction to stop a new Arkansas law that would slap criminal charges against librarians and booksellers for providing “harmful” materials to minors. The bill, signed by Christian Nationalist Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R), was set to take effect today. In addition to enabling criminal charges against booksellers, the law would have created a new process to challenge library materials.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas and the Central Arkansas Library System applauded the judge’s decision, with executive director of the ACLU in Arkansas Holly Dickson saying “The question we had to ask was, do Arkansans still legally have access to reading materials? Luckily, the judicial system has once again defended our highly valued liberties.”

A chilling effect

The coalition that had challenged the law was concerned that it would jeopardize First Amendment rights. They also suspected that fear of prosecution would lead bookstores and libraries to stop carrying titles that could potentially be challenged.

Brooks called out this legislation for what it is: unconstitutional censorship. It targets and threatens booksellers and librarians, to everyone’s detriment. A bookseller does not have a responsibility to police what your child buys and reads. This law also limits the ability of older minors, like 17-year-olds, from purchasing books with “harmful” content – which is a serious limit on free speech rights and an excessively paternalistic approach to content moderation.

What qualifies as “harmful” material under this bill? It’s already illegal to sell pornography to minors, so there is little doubt that this bill intends to criminalize selling books with LGBTQ+ content, themes and characters. It is a pathway to discriminate against marginalized communities and silence the voices of LGBTQ+ authors.

Who decides what’s ‘harmful’?

I’ll remind you that the vagueness of this bill’s phrasing is intentional; it allows nearly limitless interpretation and thus limitless enforceability. Any content deemed “harmful” by the state can be criminalized. This bill is an overt attack on books, booksellers and librarians.

As Ray Bradbury put so well in Fahrenheit 451, which Brooks quoted in his decision, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”


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