Proposed Missouri book ban could jail librarians for loaning inappropriate content
Librarians and free speech groups contest bill limits readers’ choices.
January 31, 2020, 4:32 PM
5 min read
Librarians and free speech advocates are fighting back against a proposal in the Missouri House of Representatives that would ban certain books from the state’s libraries with the threat of a misdemeanor charge.
Missouri House Rep. Ben Baker introduced the bill, dubbed the “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act,” in January that calls for the creation of a panel made up of non-library workers who will determine the removal of “age-inappropriate sexual material,” from their local branch.
Libraries that don’t comply will lose their funding. Library employees providing material deemed inappropriate would be hit with a misdemeanor charge and liable for a $500 fine or a maximum jail sentence of a year, according to the bill’s current language.
Cynthia Dudenhoffer, the president of the Missouri Library Association, said she was shocked when she first heard about the bill and said it was unnecessary. Each of the state’s library systems, which account for a total of 365 branches, already have their own protocols in place to determine which materials are allowed for their younger members.
“Librarians take that stuff very seriously,” she said to ABC News. “It’s not like we buy things willy-nilly.”
Messages to Baker’s office were not returned. The representative and former minister told the Springfield News-Leader he wrote the bill in response to drag queen story hours that were taking place in certain branches in the state.
“I wanted to send a strong message that we need to protect our kids and we need to do something about this, but that’s all negotiable,” Baker told the paper.
Dudenhoffer, however, noted that drag queen story hours and other similar events aren’t mentioned in the bill and those readings have not included books with sexually inappropriate content. Nora Pelizzari, a spokeswoman for the National Coalition Against Censorship, which called on the Missouri Legislature to reject the bill this week, said the proposal is trying to remove books that promote positive LGTBQ messages.
“This is one tactic that is being taken to try to put forward this idea that children should not have access to picture books about a prince and knight falling in love,” she said to ABC News.
Pelizzari added that the bill’s current language gives too much power to the boards and their choices may not reflect the needs of their branch’s users.
Dudenhoffer agreed and said the current rules in place for objective material are already working. Every librarian who works in the state’s system must have a master’s degree and go through strict training which includes determining which materials are appropriate for younger readers, she said.
“The librarians have training to represent the needs of the community,” Dudenhoffer said.
The state’s branches also take feedback from readers about materials they find questionable and library boards have protocols to remove a book or put it in a different section based on cardholders’ suggestions, Dudenhoffer said. For example, the 2003 coming of age graphic novel “Blankets” was removed from Missouri libraries after library users complained about its content.
“We work on it person by person, case by case,” Dudenhoffer said. “We do go out of our way to make sure that the library is serving the community that [materials are] placed in the right section.”
Dudenhoffer said she hopes the representative and his colleagues reconsider the bill and work with them to determine how they can address readers’ needs.