After news last month that legal action was imminent, a coalition of 18 plaintiffs led by the Central Arkansas Library System has now filed a federal lawsuit challenging a new Arkansas law that would expose librarians and booksellers to criminal liability for making allegedly inappropriate books accessible to minors.

The 34-page complaint, filed on June 2 in the Western Division of Arkansas in Fayetteville, argues that Act 372, signed into law by governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders on March 30, violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution because it imposes "a content-based restriction on speech that (a) is not narrowly tailored, (b) is overly broad, and (c) is vaguely worded." The law is set to take effect on August 1.

Specifically, the suit challenges two provisions of the new law: an "Availability Provision," which seeks to regulate the display of allegedly "harmful" materials to minors, and a provision requiring libraries to implement a vague and sweeping new "Challenge Procedure" that would empower "any person" to challenge the “appropriateness” of materials in a library’s collection.

The law also removes an existing "exemption from prosecution" provision in Arkansas state law, exposing librarians and booksellers to potential felony charges—"punishable by imprisonment for up to a year"—for knowingly distributing allegedly inappropriate material to a minor, which, the complaint states, will force libraries and bookstores "to self-censor in a way that is antithetical to their core purposes."

The suit seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction enjoining the enforcement of the Availability Provision and the Challenge Procedure and a declaratory judgment that the provisions are unconstitutional.

"One component of the new law makes it a crime for libraries, booksellers, and any brick-and-mortar establishment to display or make available works that might be harmful to minors. This will require libraries and booksellers to limit all readers to books appropriate for minors, or exclude all minor readers from their premises," explains a joint release from the plaintiffs. "The second provision makes it possible for any person in Arkansas to demand the removal of a book the person deems inappropriate, limiting readers to one person’s opinion about what books should be in the library."

As the Arkansas Advocate reports, the suit has been expected for weeks and was said to be imminent after the board of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), lead plaintiff and the driving force behind the suit, voted to approve the filing of the lawsuit at its May 25 meeting.

We are doing this for our patrons and our staff, and to honor our longstanding opposition to censorship and commitment to free speech and the freedom to read.

On June 2, CALS executive director Nate Coulter—whose April decision to explore the suit drew an angry May 4 editorial from the bill's sponsor—explained the library's decision to spearhead the suit in an updated message on the CALS website: "I sought authority to have CALS file suit because I believe strongly that it is the responsibility of the largest public library in the state to lead efforts to have a court determine the legal and practical obligations of this new law," Coulter, also a named plaintiff in the suit, wrote. "We are doing this for our patrons and our staff, and to honor our longstanding opposition to censorship and commitment to free speech and the freedom to read."

Coulter added that he has been heartened by the expressions of support for the suit—including a powerful alliance of library, publishing, author, and bookseller groups joining as plaintiffs—the Freedom to Read Foundation (the ALA's First Amendment Defense arm), the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

The plaintiffs also include the Fayetteville Public Library; The Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library; Adam Webb (Garland County Library executive director); the Arkansas Library Association; Advocates for All Arkansas Libraries; WordsWorth Books (an independent bookstore in Little Rock); Pearl’s Books (an independent bookstore in Fayetteville); Leta Caplinger; Parent Jennie Kirby and Hayden Kirby (a 17 year-old CALS patron); and Olivia Farrell (an adult CALS patron).

"Together, we have filed this lawsuit to protect the First Amendment rights of Arkansas’ reading community," reads a joint statement from the plaintiffs. "We oppose any and all efforts to undermine the First Amendment, which is foundational to our democracy and critical to the lawful exchange of art, literature, and information."

The suit in Arkansas comes just two weeks after Penguin Random House joined forces with PEN America and a host of concerned authors and parents to sue school administrators in Escambia County, Florida, over the removal of books from school libraries.