Last week, the Arkansas General Assembly concluded its 2023 regular session and will officially adjourn on May 1, barring any need to address vetoes or significant errors. While we always hope -- and have a right to expect – that Arkansas officials have our best interests at heart, this session brought forth too many bills that undermine our interests and most fundamental rights. Conforming to extremist trends across the country, politicians attacked and weakened our civil liberties across areas of racial justice, LGBTQ rights, criminal legal reform, free speech, education, and systemic equality.
In the face of these injustices and infringements on our rights, we, the people of Arkansas, banded together to curb several pieces of misguided legislation. It is due to the power of the people, the power of community, and the power of individuals’ will to see a better future that we overcame some of the attacks on Arkansans’ rights. Some of the major victories include:
• SB71: (Defeated) Sought to ban programs that allow for a level playing field in opportunities with state government including any form of affirmative action.
• SB43: (Amended) Originally sought to criminalize drag performances and other forms of expression and association.
• SB270: (Amended) Originally aimed to criminally charge trans people in restrooms and changing rooms for sharing these private spaces with a minor.
• Stand for AR Rights Rally: Over 30 community organizations united to exercise their first amendment rights for all civil rights and civil liberties for every Arkansan.
Most bills passed into law do not go into effect until 90 days after the legislature officially adjourns; stay tuned for more from us about these and other new laws. And meanwhile, please join us in recounting some of the worst bills that passed this session and learn more about their infringement on our civil rights and liberties:
To correct injustices of the past, we must build opportunities for the future; yet bills that set us further back kept coming.
HB1559/Act 511 prohibits a school or institution of higher learning from requiring an employee to complete or participate in implicit bias training.
HB1534/Act 424 repeals modest requirements to protect against racial discrimination in school board elections.
SB495/Act TBD hurts Black, Brown, and poorer Arkansans by exacerbating a severe and discriminatory criminal punishment system that already affects these Arkansans most harshly because of race or inability to pay.
The never ending assault on LGBTQ+ Arkansans’ rights has persisted for decades and we faced – and passed – some of the worst bills in the nation this session.
HB1156/Act 317 is an anti-trans law requiring students in public schools to use restrooms and locker rooms according to their sex assigned at birth. This is a law that further endangers gender non-conforming and trans youth.
SB199/Act 274 provides that a healthcare professional who performs a gender transition procedure on a minor is liable if the minor is physically or psychologically injured; the injured minor may bring a civil action, hindering access to gender-affirming care.
HB1468/Act TBD prohibits faculty members, teachers, and employees of public schools and state-supported institutions of higher education from using a student's preferred name and pronouns without parental consent, and would allow school employees to misgender students and colleagues alike, regardless of students’ and parents’ wishes.
The first amendment protects our speech, thought, exchange of ideas and rights to association, but Arkansas legislators repeatedly attempted to limit our most fundamental rights to think, speak, and move in society in our own ways.
SB62/Act TBD is an extension of Act 710 of 2017, which required private business contracting with the state to sign a pledge certifying they will not boycott Israel. This new law requires another pledge that private businesses won't boycott energy, fossil fuel, firearms, or munitions manufacturers. Proponents of these bills have been and will keep working to prohibit speech they don’t agree with or like until no such speech is allowed.
SB81/Act 372 expands the definition of obscene materials and would subject every employee of a school or library to criminal prosecution under obscenity laws for any books, ebooks, and educational resources in their library. The law also requires a new review process for library materials which places county elected officials with no legal training in the position to determine what is and isn’t protected by the First Amendment.
SB396/Act TBD requires social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube to contract with a third-party system to verify that users are 18 or have consent from parents or guardians to use the sites. Because it requires collecting and maintaining private information (from both minors and adults), it can defeat online anonymity and put people’s personal information at risk. It may also run afoul of the First Amendment by limiting access to information and speech.
SB556/Act TBD creates heightened protections for students' religious speech – and religious speech only. This is content-based discrimination that violates the First Amendment and tries to usurp the role of parents, not the government, to control children’s religious upbringing.
In Arkansas, and across the country, legislators sought to substitute their judgment and that of educators to inappropriately control and redefine how and what children learn and invite inequitable educational systems all too familiar in Arkansas. The dramatic overhaul of the educational system in Arkansas will have consequences that will affect our state for years to come.
SB294/Act 237, known as the LEARNS Act, is a multi-topic education edict to upend public education in Arkansas through private school vouchers, stagnant teacher pay, increased law enforcement, and an assortment of standardized assessments. LEARNS seeks to shift resources and control of public schools to private schools controlled by outside groups with little to no accountability. The law seeks to prohibit what conservatives have termed “indoctrination,” meaning the teaching of “critical race theory” and limit even age-appropriate education about sexual education, sexual orientation, and gender identity. LEARNS eliminates protections for teachers under the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and prohibits school districts from providing teachers with any further protections that are not provided under state law.
HB1539/Act TBD repeals the requirement for public school districts and open-enrollment public charter schools to offer expelled students alternative courses equal to the credits the student may have received if enrolled.
HB1738/Act TBD forbids public school education about our nation's history regarding race and racism. The bill frames discussions of discrimination or privilege as “controversial viewpoints,” and allows parents to remove their child from any class period where there may be age-appropriate teaching or discussion of these important truths.
Arkansas has plenty of resources to share amongst its citizens, but Arkansas politicians in the General Assembly sought to limit who had access to services that help combat poverty and systemic inequality.
HB1196/Act 160 establishes a work requirement for “able-bodied” Arkansans to qualify for and receive public housing benefits, creating additional barriers for those already under-resourced and facing tough systemic challenges.
HB1197/Act 106 disqualifies a person from receiving unemployment benefits for failing to accept suitable work within five days of a job offer or failing to appear for a scheduled job interview on two or more occasions without providing notice.
HB1410/Act 195 repeals the requirement that children under the age of 16 obtain permission from the Arkansas Division of Labor in order to be employed.
Though the regular session of the Arkansas General Assembly has concluded for the year, that does not mean our work is complete. To ensure we create a better future, it is up to us to get involved. Here are a few easy ways you can continue to use your voice:
• Contact your legislator and find out how you can continue to support them.
• Discuss your stance on the issues you care about with friends, family and others in your community.
• Attend city council, school board, quorum court, county board of election commissioners, and other public meetings in your community.
• Vote in local and state elections and encourage others to register to vote.
The Arkansas state motto is Regnat Populus – the people rule – so it is up to all of us to continue our work towards an Arkansas that works for all of us. We hope that you’ll support our ongoing efforts with your donations, and by sharing our messages and signing up to receive our emails. Thank you for your support for the ACLU of Arkansas, and your work to protect the civil liberties and civil rights of ALL Arkansans.