Obscenity Bill Targets School Libraries


Lori Curtis during the LEARNS bill walkout Mar. 3.

“I’m a devoted public servant. I’m certainly not interested in providing pornography to children,” school librarian Lori Curtis said regarding Arkansas Senate Bill 81.

The proposed bill would remove school employees and public librarians from protection under the state’s current obscenity defense law. Librarians found guilty of supplying a minor with a “harmful item” would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which can be punished by up to a year in jail. In addition, the bill allows the parents or legal guardians of a minor to access their child’s library record and alters the procedure by which books in school library collections are challenged and reconsidered.

Curtis is doubtful that librarians will be prosecuted but has concerns about what a new reconsideration policy means for day-to-day operations.

“I want to say it’s unlikely that a librarian will face charges. But also, there’s a part of me that would have never dreamed that this bill would receive traction,” Curtis said. “For me, the biggest concern is the amount of time that dealing with unnecessary questions about materials that are on our shelves is going to take away from me servicing students. Because according to the bill, we will be responsible for ebooks, print books, and digital resources.”

During the bill’s presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Dan Suillivan, the bill’s primary sponsor, argued that libraries should not be above the law. While the bill removes obscenity defenses from teachers and both school and public librarians, it retains the protection of museum staff.

“If you felt like no one should be above the law, why are you not including museum staff in the bill? That’s what I mean when I say it feels like a slap in the face to educators, school libraries, and public librarians,” Curtis said.

She noted that the bill allows anyone to file book challenges regardless of whether they are a community member, which she says opens the door for interest groups to bombard school libraries with book challenges that must be settled by a community board.

“On the board, there has to be a librarian, a teacher, a principal or administrator of some sort, some community members, and then the person that wanted to reconsider the item. So I could have somebody on that committee who’s a Moms for Liberty person who lives in Texas who would be then providing input on what goes on our community shelves,” Curtis said.

Moms for Liberty is a conservative organization founded in Florida in 2021 that focuses on parental rights in schools. Their advocacy has included book bans as well as bans on teaching critical race theory and LGBTQ history.

During a House Judiciary Committee meeting discussing the bill, a Moms for Liberty member read sexually explicit excerpts from library books to express her support of the bill.

Curtis called the reading of excerpts out of context very concerning and called the speech an obvious attempt to upset legislators.

Though it passed in the Senate Feb. 22, a House committee voted against SB81 after three hours of discussion Mar. 7. But the victory for educators was short lived as Representative Justin Gonzales amended the bill Mar. 9, bringing it back up for discussion in the House.

Chiefly, the amendment changed the handling of books deemed to be harmful from being “removed from the library’s collection” to being “relocated within the library’s collection to an area that is not accessible to minors.” Curtis believes the amendment was an attempt to soften the connotation of the bill while preserving its effect.

“It doesn’t seem logical to have a collection of books that your patrons can check out, just in a separate section of the library,” Curtis said. “In fact, adding the relocation of material, I believe, was an attempt to appease individuals or to basically deceive them into believing that this isn’t censorship. We’re not ‘banning’ books. It’s just verbiage. You’re still prohibiting anyone under eighteen from checking out books, so it doesn’t make any difference. To me, it’s another attempt to mislead people with a really bad piece of legislation that is unnecessary. I mean, it’s government overreach, is what I would have to say. Absolutely government overreach.”

If passed, Senate Bill 81 would not be the only regulation of school libraries. There are already mechanisms in place that prevent lewd material from finding its way to shelves, and parents can challenge material they may view as inappropriate.

“Most of the time I’ve had a parent that has a concern, they just want to be listened to. It’s for them to have an understanding that just because they disagree with a book doesn’t mean that it might not meet another reader’s needs in some way,” Curtis said. “I feel like they’re pretty reasonable when you present them with that information. And oftentimes, they will just decide, okay, just my kid can check this out, but you should not be able to determine what every student in a school reads.”

Curtis also detailed the training and processes used when selecting books for the library.

“I’m very much aware that in every library where I’ve ever worked, or when I’ve been an administrator, there is a clear selection guideline. We do not have pornography in our collections at school libraries. When I was working on my masters, I took an entire three hour course on collection development, and a part of that was developing a selection policy.”

SB81 would alter the selection and reconsideration process from the American Library Association’s policy which most school libraries follow according to Curtis.

The primary concern for Curtis is the allowance for non-community members to submit mass challenges of library material. For example, of the 159 titles on the Moms for Liberty Florida Book Challenge List, LRSD schools have eighty-three in libraries or classrooms. Forty-eight percent of those titles include a protagonist who is an racial minority and seven percent of which identify as LGBTQ. The American Library Association published a list of the top ten most challenged books in 2021. Collections in LRSD schools have seven of these titles, and of the seven, five have protagonists who are black or another racial minority.

Curtis said that banning award-winning books, especially those with minority protagonists, denies students the exposure to diverse perspectives. The American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights affirms that “libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues” and “should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”
Curtis said that “The Land” by Mildred Taylor has been targeted because of its diverse perspective. Despite winning the Coretta Scott King Award, “The Land” is banned in several Florida schools because of racial slurs used in historical context. The Moms for Liberty organization frequently challenges this title.

“Although there are those who wish to ban my books because I have used language that is painful, I have chosen to use the language that was spoken during the period, for I refuse to whitewash history.”

— Mildred Taylor

“I love Mildred Taylor’s quote, where she makes the point that there’s something in every library that will probably make others uncomfortable, and that’s the beauty of not censoring, you know, is having different types of items within a collection,” Curtis said.

Curtis has many questions about certain aspects of the bill. She wonders if under the bill’s definition of “harmful item” science textbooks and school sanctioned performances will be classified as illegal to show to minors. When the bill has been up for discussion in the House or Senate, she has sent emails to every representative or senator to voice her opinion and concerns.

“SB81 not only infringes on students’ right to read, but it also adds unnecessary, redundant, burdensome laws into our already overflowing system,” Curtis said.

The bill passed in the House Mar. 15 with the amendment that replaces “removed” with “relocated”.” On Mar. 27, it will be read in the Senate and voted on with the new amendment.