MO Bill Proposes Parental Review Board for “Age-Inappropriate” Material, Legal Penalties for Noncompliance

A bill filed this week in Missouri would give a specially appointed parental board oversight over public library materials deemed inappropriate for minors and proposes legal ramifications for librarians who don’t comply—leaving library leadership, workers, and supporters up in arms.

UPDATE: A similar bill in Tennessee, the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act (H.B. 2721), was killed in the House Cities and Counties subcommittee on March 11. The Senate companion bill, S.B. 2896, is expected to die as well.

 

A bill filed this week in Missouri would give a specially appointed parental board oversight over public library materials deemed inappropriate for minors and proposes legal ramifications for librarians who don’t comply—leaving library leadership, workers, and supporters up in arms.

Missouri Capitol Building
Missouri Capitol Building
Photo by RebelAt of English via Wikipedia

When the Missouri General Assembly convened for the year on January 8, Rep. Ben Baker (R-Neosho) introduced H.B. 2044, the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, which proposes to keep “age-inappropriate sexual material” in libraries out of the hands of minors. If passed, the bill would mean that any library staff that violates it would face a $500 fine or a year in jail, and state aid for offending libraries would be cut as well.

H.B. 2044 proposes to repeal Section 181.060 of Missouri State Law regarding state aid for public libraries, enacting two new sections relating to parental oversight with penalty provisions. The first, section 5, states that “No public library shall receive any state aid under this section if such library allows minors to access age-inappropriate sexual materials in violation of section 182.821.” (According to the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office, as of 2018, the state had a total of six consolidated, seven regional, 54 county or city/county, and 84 municipal tax-supported public libraries.)

 182.821 defines “Age-inappropriate sexual material” to include “any description or representation, in any form, of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse.” This would include material that “appeals to the prurient interest of minors” and “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”

The bill calls on each library to establish a parental library review board composed of five adult residents of the library’s geographic area, to be elected by majority vote by members of the community; each board member would serve a term of two years. The board will determine what constitutes age-inappropriate sexual material through public hearings, at which community members can present their concerns about specific material to the parental review board.

The board can then order any material deemed age-inappropriate to be removed from public access. The board’s word would be final—potentially overriding the authority of both library staff and the library board of trustees.

The final item of the proposed bill states, “Any public library personnel who willfully neglects or refuses to perform any duty imposed on a public library under this section, or who willfully violates any provision of this section, is guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year.”

 

NATIONAL CRITICSM, BAKER’S DEFENSE

The bill received immediate backlash, both locally and nationally. “Missouri House Bill 2044 clearly proposes policies and procedures that threaten library users’ freedom to read and violate our deeply held commitment to families’ and individuals’ intellectual freedom, as expressed in ALA’s [American Library Association] Library Bill of Rights,” said ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (ALA-OIF) Executive Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone in a statement.

“This is a shockingly transparent attempt to legalize book banning in the state of Missouri,” James Tager, deputy director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America, wrote in a statement. “This act is clearly aimed at empowering small groups of parents to appoint themselves as censors over their state’s public libraries. Books wrestling with sexual themes, books uplifting LGBTQIA+ characters, books addressing issues such as sexual assault—all of these books are potentially on the chopping block if this bill is passed.”

However, Baker has insisted that the bill is not meant to censor material. In several interviews with local news outlets, he stated that his issues are not about library materials, but programming—specifically, Drag Queen Story Hour, which has prompted both anger and support across the country. “I’m trying to figure out a way for parents to have recourse if…the library board is saying 'Hey, we're OK with this' or even promoting it, which has happened,” Baker told the Springfield News-Leader.

In an interview with KOAM News, Baker said, “The main thing is, I want to be able to take my kids to a library and make sure they’re in a safe environment, and that they’re not going to be exposed to something that is objectionable material.” He added, “Unfortunately, there are some libraries in the state of Missouri that have done this. And that’s a problem.”

While Baker’s local library districts have not hosted any drag queen story hours, libraries and public spaces in larger Missouri cities such as St. Louis, Kansas City, and St. Joseph have.

In a January 16 interview, Baker reiterated to the Kansas City Star that the bill was about programming and not materials, adding that its language “required work.” Baker’s office had not responded to LJ’s request for comment at press time.

 

UNDERCUTTING LIBRARY POLICY, PRACTICE

News of Baker’s bill “caught us completely unaware,” Neosho/Newton County Library Director Carrie Cline told LJ. “He and his family are avid users of our library. They've always been very supportive. So when I found about it we were completely puzzled."

Cline reached out to Baker, wondering if there had been some incident at the library that triggered his proposed legislation. When they spoke on January 13, however, he assured her that it had nothing to do with local library practices. "He assured me that he's never had an episode here. He feels like his children will always be safe in our building,” said Cline.

That Baker’s bill, as written, conflates programming with materials is an issue for Cline and other library supporters across the state. "This bill is addressing our collection, and to me they are two completely separate things,” said Cline. “That has been my problem with the whole thing from beginning to end—make sure the bill is saying what you mean it to say. When you start attacking people’s right to literature, and to read what they want, and when you try to start censoring people, it gets ugly pretty fast."

The bill’s proposal of a board that could override library leadership or board decisions is also problematic, noted Missouri Library Association (MLA) President Cynthia Dudenhoffer. “Library boards of trustees have this power already. There's not a need for another oversight,” she told LJ. “There's no recourse if the parental board chooses to remove material from a library or place it in a different section. The parental board is the final say in the process."

Dudenhoffer added “Libraries have policies in place to control materials if a parent has a challenge. There's lots of oversight there. I feel that the bill doesn't necessarily understand the work that librarians do, or the specialized training that we have to select appropriate materials."

While the bill has been read twice but has not yet been assigned to a committee, MLA is currently working with local legislators and has prepared talking points and a more in-depth advocacy campaign should it proceed.

"We already have many people in our membership and throughout the state who are contacting legislators,” Dudenhoffer told LJ. “Our legislative committee and our leadership team have already gone through the policy and have a point-by-point response to what's going on.”

For library supporters who want to make their voices heard, political action committee EveryLibrary has organized an online petition. "The decision to access books and other materials in the library is a decision between the parents and their children,” EveryLibrary executive director John Chrastka told LJ. “Having a new, potentially self-appointed, review panel in the mix sets up a situation where special interests can drive the conversation and impose their own norms on the community.”

"It's deeply concerning to suggest that a small group of parents can decide what every family in a community should read, rather than letting each family choose for themselves,” Caldwell-Stone told LJ. “We've seen this disturbing trend of trying to classify even age appropriate innocuous books that simply portray a family with same-sex parents or a same-sex couple as inherently sexualized and obscene, and I fear that the legislation would allow that kind of censorship to take place in libraries and restrict the ability of every family to be able to see itself in the library's collection."

Caldwell-Stone pointed to the 2000 case Sund v. City of Wichita Falls (TX), in which the city council had passed the Altman Resolution, an ordinance allowing any 300 people to sign a petition that would remove books written and intended for children from the children’s area and place them on a restricted shelf in the adult section of the library—the two books under contention were Daddy’s Roommate and Heather Has Two Mommies. A group of grandparents, parents, and youth sued the library for a violation of their First Amendment rights and won; the ruling read, in part, “By conferring upon any 300 patrons the power to remove from the children's section any books they find objectionable, the Altman Resolution unconstitutionally confers a heckler's veto on the complaining patrons, effectively permitting them to veto lawful, fully-protected expression simply because of their adverse reaction to it.”

Cline feels that Baker’s bill is “wildly unconstitutional,” and will die before moving through the legislature. "Everyone across the board, no matter how conservative or liberal they are—I've never seen one person who's been for this bill or thought it was a good idea,” she told LJ. “I have a very active homeschool community, and I thought, OK, some of these people might actually support it. They do not. In fact, they have been the most willing to email him, to text him, to write him letters, and say, ‘You will not take away our rights. You will not censor us.’”

If it does move forward, however, MLA—and library supporters across the country—are prepared to fight it. “We're ready to mobilize,” said Dudenhoffer. “We're hoping that we don't have to."

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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