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The Arkansas State Library Board voted unanimously on Friday to give public libraries their allotted quarterly share of state money after former state Sen. Jason Rapert tried to suspend funding for the libraries suing the state.
The board authorized the disbursement of almost $1.4 million over the next couple of weeks, State Library Director Jennifer Chilcoat said. The board will meet again in May to distribute the final quarterly share of funds for fiscal year 2024, which ends June 30.
Rapert, one of two new board members confirmed in December, proposed temporarily withholding funds for the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), the Fayetteville Public Library and the Eureka Springs Public Library.
The three libraries are among the 18 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against Act 372 of 2023. The law would alter Arkansas libraries’ processes for reconsidering material and create criminal liability for librarians who distribute content that some consider “obscene” or “harmful to minors.” A federal judge temporarily blocked portions of the law in July before it went into effect, and the case is scheduled for trial in October.
Rapert’s motion died after none of the other six board members seconded it. Later in the meeting, he asked Chilcoat to survey libraries throughout the state to find out if their collections include certain books he considers objectionable. Chilcoat said she would do so.
The plaintiffs challenging Act 372 have argued that it would unfairly restrict librarians’ speech and is unclear about how to avoid the criminal charges. U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks wrote in his preliminary injunction order that the challenged sections were too vague and could lead to arbitrary interpretation and “content-based restrictions” that violate the First Amendment.
Rapert argued Friday that since the Arkansas State Library is a subsidiary of the state, which is a defendant in the lawsuit, the agency should not direct taxpayer dollars to the plaintiffs.
“We basically are just writing a check to their attorneys for the litigation,” said Rapert, a Republican who represented Conway in the state Senate from 2011 to 2023. “I’m simply saying that most anyone in here would find it objectionable.”
Board member Pam Meridith of Cherokee Village said she opposed Rapert’s motion.
“If we did withhold funds, that would not only hurt the library as a building or as an agency, but it would hurt the entire community,” she said. “…[Additionally], we would be taking a political stand, and I don’t believe that is our cause here.”
Rapert said he believed his proposal was “good business” and not a political statement. He also said he only supported withholding funds until the lawsuit against Act 372 has concluded.
He added that he believed the three libraries in question are large enough to “take care of themselves” and their communities would be unlikely to suffer from the temporary withholding of funds.
Board member Lupe Peña de Martinez of Mabelvale said she was not convinced that withholding funds from the three libraries would have no impact on their services or the people who use them.
“I envision the mom who’s using the toy library; I envision the teenager or grandparent who’s going to use the seed library,” Peña de Martinez said, referring to some of CALS’ services. “…My concern is that if these funds are withheld, ultimately they will feel the impact.”
Shari Bales of Hot Springs, who was appointed to the board in December along with Rapert, said she wanted more information about how much the libraries are paying their attorneys and if they are receiving any financial support from private entities rather than solely using public funds for the litigation. Bales suggested withholding funds based on the amount of public money being used for attorneys’ fees rather than withholding a library’s entire share.
Rapert and board Chairwoman Deborah Knox of Mountain Home both said they did not have information about the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and would not be able to obtain it on short notice.
After Rapert’s motion died for lack of a second, a motion to disburse the prescribed state funds to all eligible public libraries passed, including with a vote from Rapert.
CALS received $139,975 for the quarter and the Fayetteville Public Library received $41,806, according to board meeting documents. The two-county Carroll and Madison Library System, which includes the Eureka Springs Public Library, received $27,870.
Over the last few years, conservatives in Arkansas have tried to tie library funding to whether certain books are available on shelves. In November 2022, a narrowly-approved ballot measure cut Craighead County libraries’ funding in half after protests over an LGBTQ+ book display and a transgender author’s visit to the library.
Republican state Sen. Dan Sullivan of Jonesboro, the seat of Craighead County, was the primary sponsor of Act 372 in the Legislature. In October, he said the state should withhold funding from the Arkansas Library Association (ArLA), a nonprofit trade association that does not receive state funding.
Many local Arkansas libraries are ArLA members, and the organization is among the plaintiffs challenging Act 372.
ArLA is the state chapter of the American Library Association (ALA), which provides training, resources and occasional help securing federal grant money to public libraries. ALA’s Bill of Rights states: “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.”
Conservatives nationwide have claimed this statement is proof that the ALA believes in forcing content about sexual activity and LGBTQ+ topics onto children.
Rapert expressed a similar sentiment Friday, saying the organization has defended the availability of sexually explicit content. He also said a “non-governmental, non-elected lobbying entity” should not determine how Arkansas sets standards for its public libraries.
He listed several books he said should not be available to minors due to their sexual content, many of which have been the target of challenges or restrictions in public and school libraries nationwide. Some that he mentioned were “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “This Book Is Gay” by Juno Dawson and “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health” by Robie Harris.
Chilcoat asked Rapert to send her a list of books for the survey by the end of next week so she can start contacting libraries. She said librarians are “very cooperative” when the State Library asks them for data.
When asked after the meeting what he would do with the results of the survey, Rapert said his main priority is knowing whether those books are on library shelves at all. He said he would support moving them to separate sections of libraries only accessible to adults, as written in Act 372.
The Crawford County Library System segregated LGBTQ+ children’s books in 2022 after public backlash, and the county faces two separate lawsuits over the matter, including the one against the state over Act 372.
Rapert claimed the books he finds objectionable are “targeting” and “lying” to children.
“We have people that say, ‘We don’t know whether we’re little girls or little boys.’ That’s a lie,” he said. “We have people that say it’s okay to have books about rape and explicit sex in front of young children. That’s a lie.”
Rapert said his role on the state library board is to “be the conscience.” In 2019, he founded the National Association of Christian Lawmakers, a group that has been responsible for right-wing model legislation introduced in several statehouses nationwide, including bans on abortion and gender-affirming medical care.
He also said his request for a survey was based on the state statute that requires libraries to have filters on their computer systems that block “access to materials harmful to minors.”
“If it’s not permissible for a minor to access something digitally in that library, why would we let them access it in print and take it home and stew on it for weeks?” he said.
Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from the Arkansas Advocate. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.