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Arkansas Act 858: An Open Letter

posted on 2003-07-06 18:46 EDT
In a letter to the Arkansas House of Representatives, Michael Tierney of The Comic Book Store in Little Rock, Arkansas, comments on new legislature restricting display of materials considered "harmful to minors."

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE ARKANSAS HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES:

Ask a group of people to declare what they consider as harmful, and you'll get as many different answers as there are people in the discussion.

One thing that everyone will agree with is that we should always protect children from harm. I'll agree with that statement. Wouldn't you? The problem is in deciding what they should be protected from.

Yesterday I opened a copy of the Comics Buyer's Guide and saw an article about Arkansas, with the headline of "DANGEROUS GROUND: PROPOSING LEGISLATION." At first, I though that this article concerned the recently passed Act 858 of Arkansas House Bill 1525, which declares that is unlawful to display any publication that might be deemed "HARMFUL TO MINORS."

Instead, the article in the CBG was about the attempts of Arkansas Representative Ezekial Candler "Took" Gaithings' attempts to create a law to protect the younger generation from; "Many radio and television programs, as well as certain scurrilous books and comics," way back in 1951. Apparently, the House of Representatives in the Fifties had a different 'down the road' vision than those of today, because "Took" never convinced his contemporaries to create a high tribunal that would be empowered to decide how and which books would be made available to the public.

In July of 2003, Arkansas legislators are about to enact 1,730 new laws. Act 858 skips right past the discussion group that "Took" proposed, and goes straight to the enactment of a new 'jump-ball' law intended to regulate the shelves of bookstores.

When Brandis Griffith of KARK TV Channel 4 News interviewed myself (as a bookstore operator) and Representatives Stephen Bright and Jay Martin (of the Arkansas State Legislature) on this matter, they answered my concerns over who would decide the definition of the word "Harmful" in this new law by declaring that it was the Bill's co-sponsors' intention to leave the wording vague, and allow each and every city to decide
that definition for themselves.

Representatives Bright and Martin don't seem to understand why there have been objections and lawsuits against this new low (oops... sorry, I meant Law; Freudian typo). They consider it a good idea to allow different sets of rules to be applied to free speech in different places throughout the state.

Couple this plan along with the old adage of "Ignorance of the law is no defense," and this quickly becomes an impossible problem for every bookstore manager in the grand old state of Arkansas.

Can you imagine if we applied that same flexibility in the rules to speed limit laws? What if every city could establish limits for what they considered fast driving, and then didn't post them? Speed traps would snare unsuspecting drivers one after another. The coffers of city governments would fill with collections from the fines--and it would become impossible to navigate the state.

Act 858 is a trap for booksellers that would be nearly as impossible to navigate. Some standards might be acceptable one day, then as soon as a single person files a complaint--you'd be violating the law the next day.

In Sweden, Disney comics are illegal because it's considered obscene that Donald Duck and his nephews don't wear trousers. Sure... I know that it's hard to conceive of by American standards - but it's true. While I have always refused to carry Adults Only comics, now with Act 858, an immigrant from Sweden could complain, and suddenly Disney comics could be considered harmful to minors in my Little Rock store. At the same time, it would be acceptable to continue selling them to all ages at my North Little Rock store.

This is an impossible situation. Laws aren't intended to be constantly shifting across the landscape.

What would the legislature think if we applied this new rule to election law? Establish different election standards in every city, and how long would the Democratic and Republican parties stand for the concept?

Not for a second.

The Arkansas Representatives think that protecting kids can't be a bad thing. Or can it? The problem is that they didn't look very far down the road when they chose the wording and left the intent vague.

Usually, not even every single person in one single room, let alone an entire city, will agree with WHICH books should be considered harmful to minors, or not. Act 858 has created not just a legal quagmire, but also an opportunity for anyone with an agenda to use the backs of booksellers as a soapbox, upon which to stand up and shout.

Here in central Arkansas, the two largest buildings built over the last couple of decades are churches. One of my customers refers to them as the Towers of Babel. What happens if one church starts to consider that another church's teachings is harmful to minors? Don't laugh it off. They each already think that the other is going to Hell, because they can't each agree on the interpretation of the same book!

Conceivably, bible bookstores could come under fire. The law doesn't say that the bottom two-thirds of a book illustration should be covered - it says that the bottom two-thirds of a book considered harmful to minors should be covered. Here come the Mormons to argue with the Catholics and the Protestants and...

Tower of Babel indeed.

The legislature has already declared that this new law is not INTENDED to be applied to any book considered to have literary value. They don't say WHO would make the determination of what literary value is. And remember, Arkansas recently sent a President to Washington who argued over the definition of a single word; "What is 'IS'?"

Enforce this new law, and it could become lawful for a town with a heavy denomination from one church to declare it illegal to display the books of other religions.

I have an ongoing argument with a youth pastor that I've played Church League softball with for several years. I personally think that the Bible is a book of knowledge that needs new chapters to encompass modern life and all the religions of today. He thinks that all the knowledge we need to live by has already been written - centuries ago.

With Act 858, he wins a point in his argument of leaving well enough alone.

In all likelihood, what I've described probably wouldn't happen. But history is a record book filled with unexpected and unconsidered ramifications caused by well-intended actions.

When you start to consider different types of worst case scenarios, it becomes obvious that Act 858 of House Bill 1525 doesn't just need to be rewritten - it needs to be filed and forgotten in the circular file. The intentions were good - but the world we live in isn't that simple. A complex society becomes Anarchy when vague rules are applied to mixed and changing interpretations.

Now, I would ask if YOU, as an individual, consider that a bookstore ever corrupted YOUR youth? Or... were you once harmed by the sight of a book cover at the grocery store checkout counter? Even though I still read them as an adult, I personally don't think that all those Disney comics I read as a kid harmed me in any way.

1,730 new laws had to involve a lot of writing on matters that will cover a lot of legal ground. This Act 858 is a powder-keg of random censorship. Back in 1951, the same legal body of the Arkansas House of Representatives refused several times to even discuss the consideration of such a measure. Today, the discussion is taking place AFTER a law has already been passed.

I believe that most people would agree that Act 858 has not been thought all the way through.

This article has a follow-up: Arkansas shelf law shelved for now (2003-08-25 22:14)
follow-up of Arkansas law threatens manga retailers

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