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Fri, July 4th, 2003   #1
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Default New Arkansas law defines many comics and books as "harmful to minors".

A new Arkansas statute designed to restrict material deemed "harmful to minors" went into effect last week, placing virtually all the state's comic book retailers in violation of the law. Act 858 (full text) targets magazines or comics that appeal to a "prurient interest" or "lacks serious literary, scientific, medical, artistic or political value for minors." Although designed to keep Penthouse and similar publications out of minors' hands, Arkansas' definition of "harmful to minors" places titles like Batman, Spider-Man, and most manga under the new law.

The result is a series of new expectations for librarians and retailers--and a great deal of unrest among store owners and consumers. Under Act 858, "blinder racks," a longtime staple of adult video and book stores, are to become commonplace in libraries and comic stores. Everything from Sailor Moon to Catcher in the Rye must be covered and "segregated in a manner that physically prohibits access" to youth, according to the new law.

Immediately after the legislature confirmed the bill, a broad coalition ranging from an independent bookstore to the Arkansas Library Association filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, arguing that the new law is unconstitutional. In a news release from the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, bookstore proprietor Mary Gay Shipley said, "I don't sell 'dirty books,' and I resent being treated like I run an adult bookstore." The sentiment is a common one among those challenging the law.

Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, spoke with ANN. "We are deeply concerned that the language of the bill would require booksellers to create an "adults only" section in their stores for material that is First Amendment protected for adults." Finan emphasizes that the new law prohibits display of a wide range of publications, "including works with serious literary and artistic merit."

The public's impression of "restricted" material is among ABFEE's greatest concerns. "The law would create a serious chilling effect because placing material in an area restricted to adults stigmatizes it." Fearing the impact on sales, he suggests, "Many people will be understandably reluctant to enter an area that seems to be reserved for pornography."

In a statement to ANN, Rita Sklar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas, clarified the coalition's goals. "We're not saying we oppose the idea of a six-year-old being able to get his hands on a copy of Penthouse. It's you or I not being able to get our hands on a copy of Of Mice and Men." She suggested that many libraries and bookstores may find it easier simply to prohibit minors from entering.

Lawmakers defend their decision to pass the law. "It could open up a can of worms. There's no doubt about that," Republican Kevin Anderson told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "But our intentions were pure."

In the first seven days of the law have brought no significant lawsuits against retailers and no wave of bookstore closures, but Arkansas store owners remain concerned. The potential for any individual to file a complaint about a store offering "restricted" materials is too high for plaintiffs like Shipley to drop the District Court lawsuit. A trial testing the law's constitutionality is likely in the near future.

Retailers hope to find a trial judge on the same page, but at present, the view remains blocked.

At least their intentions were pure...
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