‘Criminalise librarians’: judge blocks controversial law

‘Criminalise librarians’: judge blocks controversial law

by Suswati Basu
Suswati Basu speaks with author Jean Kwok on US book bans

A US federal judge has blocked a questionable law that could criminalise librarians and booksellers, in the latest push by the right wing conservatives to ban books. In April 2023, Arkansas passed a law that ignited a fierce debate over freedom of speech and censorship. The law aimed to outlaw librarians and booksellers who provided “harmful” materials to minors, sparking concerns about its constitutionality and potential implications on literary freedom.

However, just before it was set to go into effect on August 1, 2023, a federal judge intervened, issuing a preliminary injunction against the law, recognising its potential adverse impact on the First Amendment rights.

I spoke to Girl in Translation author Jean Kwok earlier this year, whose book was challenged for content the school board deemed “pornographic”.

Why criminalise librarians – what is new law?

The law in question defined “harmful” materials as those that “mention sex or sexual conduct, as that material may be deemed harmful to the youngest minors—even though the same material would not be harmful to the oldest minors”. This ambiguous definition raised red flags among critics, who feared it could be wielded as a tool for broad censorship, impacting classic literature, educational textbooks, and diverse literary works.

Read: Obama’s summer reading list revealed amid banned books outcry

Furthermore, the law allowed individuals to challenge the placement of a book in a library by filing a complaint with the state’s Department of Education. If the department determined the book to be “harmful,” it had the authority to order the removal or relocation of the book, limiting access for minors.

According to legal press service Courthouse News, those found to have violated the law would face being convicted of a Class D felony. This classification that encompasses crimes such as aggravated assault and breaking and entering, carries a maximum sentence of six years in prison and a fine up to $10,000. However, District Court Judge Timothy L. Brooks, who was appointed by Barack Obama, issued the temporary injunction.

Outcry from librarians, authors, and free speech advocates

Arkansas’ proposed law was met with widespread criticism from librarians, authors, and free speech advocates nationwide. They argued that the legislation represented a dangerous precedent in censoring artistic expression and limiting access to information. The vague language of the law left room for arbitrary interpretations, potentially stifling open discourse and creativity.

Critics also pointed out that this law undermined the role of libraries as safe spaces for learning and exploration. By placing librarians at risk of criminal liability, it discouraged them from curating diverse collections and catering to the varying needs of their patrons. The American Library Association called Judge Brook’s decision “good news for librarians, booksellers and citizens of Arkansas!”

Federal judge’s decision around law to criminalise librarians

On July 29, 2023, just two days before the law was scheduled to take effect, Brooks intervened with a significant preliminary injunction. The judge acknowledged the likelihood that the law was unconstitutional, stating that “[t]he vagueness of such a regulation raises special First Amendment concerns because of its obvious chilling effect on free speech.” In addition, the ruling said it put an “unjustified burden on any older minor’s ability to access free library books.”

“[When] it comes to public spaces, like public libraries, “the governmental interest in protecting children from harmful materials . . . does not justify an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults.”

judge Timothy Brooks

He emphasised the law’s ambiguous language, which lacked clear guidelines for librarians to determine what materials might be deemed “harmful.” Such ambiguity could lead to an atmosphere of self-censorship among library staff, denying the public their constitutional right to access information and ideas.

The future of the law

While the preliminary injunction offers a crucial victory for librarians and free speech advocates, the fate of the law remains uncertain. The legal battle is still ongoing, and the court has yet to determine its constitutionality definitively. Nevertheless, the judge’s decision to block the law serves as a powerful message that attempts to suppress literature and restrict access to information will not go uncontested.

Read: Banned books in the US: 10 books on list

Consequently, this has raised serious concerns about freedom of speech and censorship. The federal judge’s issuance of a preliminary injunction thankfully offers hope to defenders of literary freedom, illustrating that constitutional rights cannot be easily trampled upon. This case serves as a reminder that protecting access to diverse ideas and fostering an environment of open discourse is vital in safeguarding democratic principles. As the legal battle unfolds, the eyes of the nation remain fixed on the outcome, hoping for an enduring victory for intellectual liberty and First Amendment rights. At the same time, this is undoubtedly a worrying trend, and we should not be repeating mistakes from history.

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