Anticipating a lawsuit, Central Arkansas Library System’s board votes to pursue legal review of new law on library materials

The Central Arkansas Library System’s board of directors at a meeting on Thursday voted to move ahead with further legal analysis of a new state law related to library materials in anticipation of a potential lawsuit challenging its constitutionality.

Among other provisions, Act 372 establishes a new Class A misdemeanor offense of knowingly furnishing a harmful item to a minor and sets parameters for citizens to challenge materials held in school or public libraries.

Under the new law, successful challenges could result in materials being relocated to an area of the collection not accessible to minors.

Should a committee of a municipal or county library decide against relocating the challenged material, the citizen could appeal the decision to the local governing body, i.e. a city council or quorum court, according to the law.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the legislation on March 30. The law is expected to take effect around Aug. 1, 90 days after the Arkansas Legislature adjourns “sine die.”

Attorney John T. Adams of the law firm Fuqua Campbell is handling the Central Arkansas Library System’s response to the law.

[DOCUMENT: Read the bill that became Act 372 »]

Nate Coulter, the executive director of the library system, told board members Thursday that Adams has been helping library officials since before the legislation was adopted in order to sort out the short-term practical implications as well as the library system’s longer-term options with regard to possible challenges on constitutional or other grounds.

Adams briefed board members on the law’s provisions. The sections on furnishing a harmful item to a minor and the challenge procedures are what officials have focused on the most, Adams said.

While not as clear an issue as the new misdemeanor offense, Adams suggested that the challenge process also might violate the First Amendment.

Some litigation is “likely,” whether it is driven by the Central Arkansas Library System or not, Adams said. His prediction was partly based on the interest seen around the state related to challenging materials, he said.

In response to a question, Adams estimated that litigation in federal court to determine the constitutional issues could cost around $30,000, though he said relying on outside legal resources could help keep costs down.

His firm was discounting its rates by one-third “to try to make it affordable, because we believe in this case,” Adams said.

The library system’s budget for legal expenses this year is $50,000, and officials usually end up spending that sum during the normal course of business, said Jo Spencer, the library system’s director of finance.

So far this year, the library system has spent $15,000 of the budgeted amount, she said.

The motion to proceed was approved 5-1 with two board members abstaining.

Board member Andy Gill, a local circuit court judge, voiced his abstention, citing his employment with the state of Arkansas and the possibility that the state might be a defendant.

Another board member, Esperanza Massana-Crane, who works for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, later followed suit.

Board member Alexis Sims was the lone vote against the motion. Earlier during the meeting, Sims raised the question of whether any library patrons had requested that the library system proceed with the legal review.

Following the vote, Coulter said he anticipated that Adams will return to the library system’s board of directors at a meeting next month.

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