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Library bill could challenge freedom of speech, director says

by Michael Hanich | March 7, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Photo By: Michael Hanich Front of Library of Camden & Ouachita County.

The state Legislature is considering a bill that could make public and school librarians liable for distributing "obscene material."

Senate Bill 81, which is set to be considered by the Arkansas House Judiciary Committee today, has garnered criticism from librarians throughout the state.

Among those who have concerns over the bill is Lisa Pickett, director of the Public Library of Camden & Ouachita County. Pickett said she feels libraries are already restricted from distributing obscene material.

"There's nothing that we can buy from a library distributor that is technically considered obscene," Pickett said. "It's a law that has been in standing for many, many years that holds what is technically, legally obscene. So what this would be are just people's opinions."

The bill would allow residents of a community to challenge the appropriateness of material held in a library, and if a library committee fails to remove the text, the resident would be able to make an appeal to their city or county government.

Librarians could face a Class D felony or Class A misdemeanor charge for running afoul of the proposed law.

Pickett said she believes at the heart of the bill lies a constitutional issue. She said the law could be used to censor opinions, and could challenge freedom of speech and intellectual freedom.

"The people that are pushing it hard are mostly concerned with LGBTQ issues, but also religious issues," Pickett said. "So there's a lot of people pushing anything that's not pro-Christian. A problem that they're going to have is that the law specifically says, talks about not providing children with books with violence, sexual issues, etc. I fully expect, if this passes, the first book that's going to be challenged is the Bible. I could be charged with a felony for checking out a Bible to a child because it is certainly full of violence and sex."

Pickett said it should not be the library's responsibility to limit content.

"What the library believes is that parents should parent their own children. Libraries should not parent children," Pickett said. "It's not up to me to decide what your child should read. You should decide what your child should read."

The Public Library of Camden & Ouachita County has specific categories for readers of all ages. All books and material have labels on the sides that denote the appropriate age-level for a text. The juvenile books are labeled juvenile while the young adult books have red stickers on the sides that saw young adults.

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