The Sentinel-Record

Webb: Amended library bill still has ‘problems’

- JAMES LEIGH The Sentinel-Record

State Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-District 20, has amended a bill he filed last month that created an uproar among librarians across the state, but Garland County Library Director Adam Webb said the changes are still concerning.

Senate Bill 81, which seeks to amend the state law regarding how libraries handle obscene materials, was amended Wednesday morning and is set to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

“I talked to a lot of people,” Sullivan said Friday, regarding amending the bill. Sullivan said he met with the Arkansas Library Associatio­n, the Arkansas School Boards Associatio­n, “met with a lot of people. And they had a lot of suggested changes. We incorporat­ed a lot of them.”

Webb said while there are improvemen­ts to the bill thanks to the amendment, “there’s still some problems here.”

“I understand his legislativ­e intent, and I understand that there are a lot of people out there who want some sort of system of accountabi­lity for public libraries, but I think that there are existing laws that cover all of this, and there’s no real need for additional legislatio­n,” he said.

Webb met with Sullivan in January to discuss some of his concerns with the bill, and he said some compromise­s were discussed. One of those was dealing with allowing parents to see what items a child has checked out.

“One of the compromise­s that we talked about was creating a system for family cards, or for allowing parents to opt in to some sort of way” to see checked-out items, he said.

“From a logistical standpoint, it’s kind of silly when libraries can’t tell a parent what their 5-year-old’s checked out when they’re trying to find the book somewhere in the house. When we met about it, we talked about creating kind of a tiered system, where if a teenager comes in and signs for their own card, that’s their card; it’s their responsibi­lity. And that’s the system that we’ve had in Garland County for a long time, and it’s worked really well.”

The amendment does not offer that option. Instead, it says “confidenti­al library records” can be disclosed to pa

trons or a “parent or legal guardian of a patron who is younger than eighteen (18) years of age.”

“My concern with the way that it’s kind of overly broad is, there have been documented cases in Arkansas, where a teen comes into the library looking for informatio­n on what to do when they’re being abused at home, or some other situation like that, parents are dealing drugs or whatever,” Webb said.

“And a day or two later, the parent shows up to the library demanding to know what their kid has been reading about or what their kid has checked out.

“And that’s a good protection to have to say, ‘I can’t disclose that informatio­n to you.’ I get that there’s probably some compromise on that that makes sense. If you have a minor child who can’t sign for their own card, who can’t come to the library by themselves anyway, then the parent is the responsibl­e party for lack of a better term, but there needs to be something in between saying a parent can check anything that’s on their kids account until they’re 18 years old.”

Sullivan said that in conversati­ons with parents and librarians across the state, the “overwhelmi­ng” response was for those records to be available for parents.

“When you talk to parents — we’ve talked to a bunch (and) we even surveyed librarians — when you talk to parents, by far, the overwhelmi­ng majority of parents, overwhelmi­ng, want to see what their kids are checking out,” he said, noting that he had no direct knowledge of a case like the one Webb cited.

“One generally, whether it’s laws or rules, one generally doesn’t make those rules based on a very small minority of cases. … There are some situations where that’s true, but by far the overwhelmi­ng majority of people want to see what their children are checking out,” he said.

The senator from Jonesboro said while he agrees “far too many” children are abused, he would want “very specific evidence” about such an instance.

Another compromise for public libraries is a requiremen­t of “a written policy to establish guidelines for the selection, removal, and retention” of publicly available “physical materials.” Webb said this was a “compromise for the criminal aspects of the bill,” but the way the amendment is worded, it creates a significan­t issue for smaller libraries.

“Require every bona fide library in Arkansas, whether it’s a school library or a public library, to have a reconsider­ation of materials policy on file with the state library, have the state library review those policies to make sure they’re in compliance with the law, and if they’re not in compliance with the law, we can withhold state funding until they get their policy up to snuff,” he said.

“So it was more of an administra­tive solution to the problem rather than this. … Honestly, it’s created a situation where the majority of public libraries in Arkansas can’t even comply with this section because they don’t have enough employees to establish the required committee of five. There’s only 26 of the 65 public library systems in the state that can comply with the requiremen­ts of the law without hiring more employees.”

The amendment requires that if an item is challenged, the library must choose five or seven “library personnel” to review the challenged item and the reason for the challenge. If a person disagrees with the committee’s ruling, it would then be referred to the “executive head of the county or city,” who would then bring it to the quorum court, city board or city council for considerat­ion.

“It’s creating this system where a library patron can take the appeal directly to the executive of the county, and then he brings it before the quorum court,” Webb said. “The quorum court can make a determinat­ion without having even read the materials. So not only are you violating the Miller test, but you’re granting judicial powers to a legislativ­e body, and that seems like that’s a violation of the separation of powers.”

Sullivan countered the argument with the fact the legislator­s can be voted out of office if they “are not doing their job.”

“Its purpose is to be able to appeal to elected officials,” he said.

“So if one wanted to make the case that some legislator­s don’t read the legislatio­n before they vote on it, that may or may not be true. And again, you’re presenting a what if, and I can’t answer all the what-ifs.

“What we can do is set in place a promulgate­d process that has an appeal up through an elected body, and if the voters feel like their people at their county level are not doing their job, then the voters can vote them out. That’s the ultimate appeal,” Sullivan said.

If a book has been determined to be removed by the legislativ­e body, the decision can be challenged, despite the amendment’s statement that “the decision of a governing body … is final,” he said.

“You can go through the same process and asked — we’re all elected, and those decisions are terminated by another decision,” he said. “If I pass a bill today, and tomorrow, someone writes a bill that kills my bill, then theirs stands. Whatever bill is passed last is one that is effectuate­d, so if somebody appeals a book or wants a book back, they can do that. That legislativ­e body elected by the people determines whether or not that happens.”

School libraries, which are already required to have a written policy regarding challenged material, have also been given specific requiremen­ts as to what that policy must include, according to the amendment.

The bill and the amendment, which was adopted and incorporat­ed into the bill, will be discussed by the Judiciary Committee Monday at 10 a.m. in Room 171 of the state Capitol. Members of the eight-member committee include both of Garland County’s elected senators, Matt McKee and Alan Clark.

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