Arkansas Lawsuit Says Restricting a Book Counts the Same as Banning It

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Two Arkansas parents are protesting the recent decision by the Cedarville, Arkansas, school board to restrict access to the Harry Potter series in school libraries. Cedarville parents Billy Ray Counts and Mary Nell Counts have filed a complaint against the Cedarville School District in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Arkansas. If the case does go to trial, it will be the first such case involving the Harry Potter series to do so.

The Counts are filing a federal lawsuit because the Cedarville school board recently voted to remove J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series from the shelves of Cedarville school libraries. The popular children’s books, which center on magic and wizards, are now only available to students with parental permission. The Counts believe this restriction is unconstitutional and is effectively the same as banning the book, said C. Brian Meadors, the attorney for the Counts. "The board’s restriction has the effect of stigmatizing the books and their readers," he said.

The controversy with the Potter series began in June, when Angie Haney, the deputy Crawford County circuit clerk, who has two children attending Cedarville schools, filed a formal complaint with the Cedarville School District, as reported by Fort Smith, Arkansas’ the Times Record. In her complaint, Haney said the books are objectionable because they teach children "parents/teachers/rules are stupid or are something to be ignored. That magic will solve your problems. That there are ‘good witches’ and ‘good magic,’" the Record article stated.

Meador said that the Library Committee, which is made up of parents and "civic-minded adults," including Billy Ray Counts, considered Haney’s complaint. The committee voted 15-0 to reject the complaint, and approved the Harry Potter books for continued unrestricted access in the Cedarville schools.

The matter should have stopped there, but, according to the complaint filed with the district court, the school board disregarded procedure when they voted 3-2 to remove the series from the libraries’ shelves and ordered that children may only access the books with parental permission. The books are now kept separate from the rest of the books in the library.

The Counts, whose child attends Cedarville elementary school, filed a federal lawsuit on July 3 challenging the school board’s decision.

Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), said that, if it does go to court, ABFFE would strongly consider filing an amicus brief on behalf of the Counts. "The [Cedarville School District] is stigmatizing this material for people who don’t know who Harry Potter is," Finan told BTW. "People say, ‘What’s the big deal about asking for parental permission?’ But if a book is not on the shelves, then a child cannot find it. If the child goes to the parent for permission and the parent doesn’t know about the book, the parent might think there is a good reason [for the restriction] and say ‘No.’ It makes it less likely for kids to get access to it. That is a serious First Amendment issue."

The Cedarville School District has until August 5 to respond to the Counts’ complaint, said Meadors. He is hoping the Cedarville school board changes its decision to restrict access to the popular Potter series and said that he still did not understand why anyone would have a problem with the popular books. "It’s not like the books are in a gray area," he said. "They are the most innocuous books you’ll ever want to see; they’re totally wholesome books. I don’t understand it."
--David Grogan