More than 11,000 Pulaski County students are unable to access online educational materials through their local public library as a legal precaution, according to school district administrators, in light of the statewide debate over what content children should be able to access in libraries.
The Pulaski County Special School District, which covers the rest of the county outside Little Rock and North Little Rock, had been participating in the Central Arkansas Library System’s “tech card” program since 2018.
The tech card program provides students with “recommended resources divided by grade level for research, homework help, and more, according to the CALS website, regardless of whether students have public library cards. Both public and private schools in Pulaski County have been enrolled in the program.
CALS Executive Director Nate Coulter said he found out Wednesday, during a conversation with administrators at the Sherwood library branch, that parents of PCSSD students told library staff their children’s tech cards no longer worked.
The school district’s legal counsel initially advised the district to keep using tech cards in accordance with the Arkansas LEARNS Act, PCSSD executive director of communications Jessica Duff said in an email. The wide-ranging education legislation requires public school districts to expand “digital learning opportunities” for students “in partnership with” businesses, education leaders and other local entities.
However, the attorney later advised PCSSD to withdraw from the tech card program because CALS’ online student portal does not have “a way to filter search results and access to particular material,” Duff said.
“At this point in time, we’re not participating in this CALS tech card program until we have more clarity as to what’s acceptable and what’s not,” she said.
What is considered “acceptable” content for minors in schools and in public libraries has been a subject of heated debate this year in Republican-led states, including Arkansas. Act 372 of 2023 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.”
Supporters of Act 372, both in public and in the Arkansas Legislature, have said the policy is necessary to keep “pornographic” content out of children’s reach. Opponents of the law have said its purpose is to reduce access to content that reflects the general public, such as the LGBTQ+ community.
Federal judge temporarily blocks two sections of Arkansas’ library obscenity law
Coulter, CALS and 16 other plaintiffs sued the state in federal court over Act 372 in June. U.S. District Judge Timothy Brooks temporarily blocked the two challenged portions of the law on July 29, three days before its effective date.
One blocked section of Act 372 would have put librarians at risk of being charged with a Class D felony for “knowingly” distributing obscene material or informing others of how to obtain it. In his ruling, Brooks agreed with the plaintiffs that the law was too vague and could lead to overly broad interpretations of the “appropriateness” of materials and whether they are “made available” simply by being on library shelves.
The other blocked section would have given city and county elected officials the final say over whether a book challenged on the basis of appropriateness can remain on library shelves or should be relocated to a place minors cannot access. Brooks noted in his ruling that this section “provides no criteria to guide the governmental body’s evaluation.”
Elected officials would only handle book challenges if a committee of library staff decides not to relocate a book and the complainant appealed the decision.
Act 372 would create a similar process for book challenges in school libraries, with school board members in charge of appeals. The lawsuit against Act 372 did not challenge this portion, and it went into effect Aug. 1.
Regulations on digital content
The blocked portion of Act 372 regarding “furnishing a harmful item to a minor” contains an exemption for “the transmission or sending of items over the internet.” This includes “posting material on an internet website, bulletin board, or newsgroup” and “sending material via a mailing list, listserv, or other method of internet communication.”
Coulter, who worked as an attorney for several years, said he reads this exemption to be “very, very narrow” and not applicable to CALS’ online learning materials or e-book distribution system.
He added that the tech card system has “undeniable benefits to kids” and is not worth sacrificing to appease those who believe children should not have access to certain parts of CALS’ collection.
“It makes it so profoundly clear that they’re willing to trade educational benefits for their ideological end,” Coulter said.
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Mississippi enacted a law earlier this year requiring internet service providers to implement “safety policies and technology protection measures” preventing minors, particularly K-12 students, from accessing “sexually oriented” or “obscene” materials. The law mentions libraries only once, but Mississippi librarians have said it limits children’s access to library materials.
The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000 requires school and public libraries to use internet filters that block pornographic content in order to receive subsidies that make internet connectivity more affordable.
Coulter said CALS has this filter in place. The sale or use of any internet software that filters for the content facing conservative backlash — primarily any materials by and about LGBTQ+ people — would face a First Amendment lawsuit, he said.
“No serious vendor is going to venture there if they get legal counsel, because that’s clearly viewpoint discrimination that the Constitution prohibits,” Coulter said.
The plaintiffs challenging Act 372 have argued that the vagueness of the law will lead to viewpoint discrimination if it is implemented as written.
Judge denies motions in suit over Arkansas county’s library practices
Crawford County is a defendant in the lawsuit in addition to the state. The county library system moved children’s books with LGBTQ+ topics to a segregated “social section,” accessible only to adults, at all five branches in December 2022. The library director at the time called the move a “compromise” after county residents objected to their availability at multiple quorum court meetings.
Three Crawford County parents sued the county and the local library board in May, calling the “social sections” a First Amendment violation. County officials cited Act 372 as a reason to keep the books segregated. U.S. District Judge P.K. Holmes denied the parents’ request for an injunction in September.