A US Court Temporarily Blocks a Library and Bookstore Law

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

A part of Arkansas’ Act 372 would make it a crime for booksellers and librarians to give minors certain state-disapproved books.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Maria Korneeva

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

An ‘Essential Mission’ of ‘Serving Readers’
This weekend, Maria A. Pallante, president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers prepared a message for the association’s membership, writing, “I am very pleased to report that District Court Judge Timothy Brooks has granted preliminary injunctions today in Arkansas on both of AAP’s challenges to Act 372, pending final resolution on the merits.”

Arkansas’ Republican governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, had signed the act into law in March, making it in the opinion of many one of the United States’ most severe measures among waves of US book-banning efforts. This law, which was set to go into effect Tuesday (August 1) would, as Pallante describes it, “subject librarians and bookstore owners to criminal prosecution for making content deemed inappropriate (by the state) available to minors, including older minors.”

So repugnant was the thought of criminalizing librarians’ and booksellers’ work that on June 2, the association announced that it was part of a coalition taking Arkansas to court. The association characterizes banning access to various books as a violation of the First Amendment rights of Arkansas’ reading citizens.

You’ll hear this court action referred to as injunctions, plural, and what that refers to is the bench’s temporary blockage of two parts of Act 371. As the AAP describes these two sections, “One component made it a crime for libraries, booksellers, and any brick-and-mortar establishment to display or make available works that might be harmful to minors. This would have required libraries and booksellers to limit all readers to books appropriate for minors or exclude all minor readers from their premises.

“The second provision made it possible for any person in Arkansas to demand the removal of a book the person deemed inappropriate, limiting readers to one person’s opinion about what books should be in the library, and it would have permitted or encouraged review boards to engage in viewpoint- and content-based discrimination.”

‘Stewards’ of a ‘Proud Tradition’

The plaintiffs at the time they filed their lawsuit with the US District Court for the Western District of Arkansas wrote, “Books have long shaped our understanding of the world around us and provided readers with the chance to explore topics that span a vast spectrum of ideas and experiences. The booksellers and librarians of Arkansas are stewards of that proud tradition, and their essential mission of serving the state’s readers must be preserved.”

Our coverage of the opening of this lawsuit by AAP and its allied plaintiffs is here.

What has resulted from the court’s Saturday grant is not only a stay against the law going into effect on schedule but also an extensive and what seems to be a deeply felt 49-page document from Judge Brooks.

At a couple of headers, he includes literary quotes, such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 lines, “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running
about with lit matches.”

In one of his most compelling passages, Judge Brooks writes:

Judge Timothy Brooks

“For more than a century, librarians have curated the collections of public libraries to serve diverse viewpoints, helped high school students with their term papers, made recommendations to book clubs, tracked down obscure books for those devoted to obscure pastimes, and mesmerized roomfuls of children with animated storytelling. So, the passage of Act 372 prompts a few simple, yet unanswered questions.

“For example: What has happened in Arkansas to cause its communities to lose faith and confidence in their local librarians? What is it that prompted the general assembly’s newfound suspicion? And why has the state found it necessary to target librarians for criminal prosecution?

“To better understand the present moment and why these questions have surfaced, we must first understand the history, purpose, and function of public libraries in America.”

The Arkansas Library Association was part of the coalition of plaintiffs involved in the effort to stop Arkansas’ Act 372, as was the Central Arkansas Library system; the Freedom to Read Foundation; Pearl’s Books; WordsWorth Books; and the now-familiar core four national organizations which include AAP, the American Booksellers Association; the Authors Guild; and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

The core group of plaintiffs, in a group statement, say, “The court has moved decisively to protect the First Amendment rights of Arkansas’ book community, consistent with the rigorous analysis that freedom of speech has always required. In barring the implementation of the challenged provisions of Arkansas Act 372, the court has preserved the constitutional right of the state’s readers to receive information, including viewpoints that state legislators may find disagreeable.

“Just as profoundly, the court has shielded the state’s booksellers and librarians from extreme punishments for performing their essential function of making books available to the public.”

‘Underscoring the Importance and Valuation of Litigation’

Pallante, in alerting her membership to the Saturday ruling in Arkansas, points out that the efforts of the AAP in working with co-plaintiffs on similar book-banning attempts in the States have been cited at various points by Judge Brooks in his opinion, “underscoring the importance and value of litigation in executing our mission.”

Maria A. Pallante

The American Civil Liberties Union in Arkansas also has commended Judge Brooks’ ruling, pointing out that Act 372 is an attempt that “old Arkansas law, which was previously declared unconstitutional after a similar challenge to that law by bookstores, librarians, authors, and the ACLU of Arkansas in 2004.”

Pallante also points up various cogent parts of Judge Brooks’ opinion, including:

  • “Silencing unpopular speech is contrary to the principles on which this country was founded and stymies our collective quest for the truth.”
  •  “Complying with the act would likely impose an unnecessary and unjustified burden on any older minor’s ability to access free library books appropriate to his or her age and reading level.
  • “It is also likely that adults browsing the shelves of bookstores and libraries with their minor children would be prohibited from accessing most reading materials appropriate for an adult… The breadth of this legislation and its restrictions on constitutionally protected speech are therefore unjustified.”

Some will see the pattern here, in which old legislation is often dusted off for new constraints on free speech and the right to read what one chooses.

Publishing Perspectives readers know that the United States is not the only world book-publishing market in which right-wing challenges are appearing. On Wednesday, we reported on a case in France in which the AAP’s counterpart, the French publishers’ association, Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE), is calling for a review of an interior ministry decree based on a 74-year-old law being deployed to block from citizens younger than 18 Manu Causse’s Far Too Small published by Éditions Thierry Magnier.

And in his opinion on Act 372, Arkansas’ Judge Brooks writes, “In 1933, federal agents blocked the importation of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses as obscene because it contained multiple passages describing sex acts.

“The district court judge considering the matter found the book to be deserving of First Amendment protection. He held that reading the work ‘in its entirety,’ rather than only isolated passages, revealed its overall literary value. …

“Today,” Judge Brooks writes, “just over a century after its first publication, Ulysses is widely viewed as one of the most influential modernist novels in the English language. The idea of banning it would seem absurd to most modern Americans.”

You can read Judge Brooks’ opinion here (PDF). Counsel for the various plaintiffs include John T. Adams of Fuqua Campbell, P.A.; Michael Bamberger of Dentons; Bettina Brownstein of the ACLU of Arkansas; and Benjamin Seel and Will Bardwell of Democracy Forward.

More from Publishing Perspectives on book bannings is here, more on censorship more widely is here, more on the freedom of expression and the freedom to publish is here, more on the Association of American Publishers is here, and more on the Syndicat national de l’édition is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.