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Federal Judge Temporarily Blocks Arkansas State Law Criminalizing Distribution of “Harmful” Materials to Minors

A federal judge in Arkansas has granted a preliminary injunction to block Act 372, a state law that would have made it a criminal offense for librarians and booksellers to provide minors with materials deemed “harmful”. The decision was seen as a victory for free-speech advocates who argued that the law violated individual liberties.

The contested law, which was set to take effect this week, would have made it a crime to knowingly distribute materials to minors that were deemed “harmful”. The definition of “harmful” included content considered sexually explicit, lacking value for minors, or deemed inappropriate according to community standards. Additionally, Article 5 of the law would have allowed anyone affected by material in a county or municipal library to challenge its appropriateness.

Opponents of the law argued that it placed librarians and booksellers in a difficult position, forcing them to choose between removing potentially offensive books from their shelves, creating adult-only spaces for such materials, banning minors from their establishments altogether, or facing criminal charges and fines. They also contended that the law allowed censorship decisions based on content or viewpoint, which violated the right to free speech.

In his injunction, U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks agreed with the plaintiffs, stating that the law encouraged censorship decisions and that the definition of “harmful” materials was too vague. The judge also denied the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The Arkansas law, known as Act 372, was signed into law in March by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders. It established criminal charges for librarians and booksellers who distributed materials deemed harmful or obscene to minors. The offices of the Arkansas Attorney General and Governor Sanders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Act 372 would have made “furnishing a harmful item to a minor” a class A misdemeanor, carrying a penalty of up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. The law removed protections that librarians and others working in educational institutions had previously enjoyed concerning the dissemination of material claimed to be obscene.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arkansas, which filed the lawsuit against Act 372, hailed the court’s decision as a victory for freedom of speech and thought. The organization emphasized that the case was part of the broader fight to defend access to reading materials. The lawsuit named Arkansas’ 28 elected prosecuting attorneys and Crawford County as defendants, suggesting that they would be responsible for enforcing the law.

The suit specifically mentioned Crawford County as an example of how Act 372 could curtail constitutionally protected rights. The county had been embroiled in a dispute over the placement of LGBTQ+ children’s books in library branches, with the county defending its right to protect children from exposure to potentially harmful materials.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit included Hayden Kirby, a 17-year-old resident of Little Rock who frequently visits the Central Arkansas Library System. Kirby expressed concern that the law would restrict her access to spaces she had previously enjoyed and advocated for intellectual freedom and diverse perspectives in libraries.

The AI legalese decoder can help with this situation by assisting legal professionals in understanding and analyzing the complexities of legal arguments and legislation. It can quickly identify key points and help in formulating strong legal arguments against laws that potentially violate constitutional rights, such as the Arkansas law in question. By providing legal experts with accurate and timely information, the AI legalese decoder can contribute to the fight for individual liberties and freedom of speech.

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