New rule threatens Missouri library funding over kids books

Despite strong opposition, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s new rule governing libraries will go into effect later this spring, threatening public libraries’ state funding over providing minors with books deemed pornographic or obscene.

Ashcroft, a Republican who recently launched a campaign for governor, last fall proposed the rule, barring public library employees from granting minors access to materials without first receiving parental permission. His office received 20,000 public comments on the proposal, including criticism from librarians across the state who argue it amounts to an attack on intellectual freedom and will lead to book banning and political censorship.

“The MO govt decided to ignore its citizens’ protest in order to pass rules to censor what libraries buy and share,” the Missouri Library Association said in a tweet. “The goal was never to protect kids bc libraries ALREADY DO THAT. It’s more an attempt to get notice before election season …”

Ashcroft’s office has pushed back, stating in the Missouri Register on Monday: “The proposed rule is not a ‘book ban.’ … Put simply, refusing to subsidize a particular activity with public monies does not violate the First Amendment.”

Under the rule, which will go into effect May 30, libraries are prohibited from using state funds to purchase materials for minors that could be considered pornography or obscene under state law. A previous version of the rule stated funds could not be used to purchase materials that appeal to the “prurient interest of a minor,” but Ashcroft’s office revised the language after receiving criticism that it was too vague.

“It’s already illegal by state law to provide those kinds of materials to minors, and no library is making those materials available to their communities,” Cody Croan, chair of the Missouri Library Association Legislative Committee, said in an email. “So this revision leaves one to wonder what the point of the rule is in the first place since it’s already prohibited by state law elsewhere that providing such materials is illegal.”

Conservative parents and lawmakers have attempted to remove several school library books they call pornographic, ranging from classics such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Margaret Atwood’s bestselling “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to books with LGBTQ themes, including “Flamer” by Mike Curato and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson.

The rule requires libraries to adopt written collection development policies addressing the age appropriateness of materials. And libraries must allow parents to limit their children’s access to materials.

Parents are emboldened to challenge materials, displays or events if they think they’re not age appropriate. And the result of any challenge must be displayed on the library’s website.

The rule was approved as Missouri lawmakers have advanced a budget that would eliminate state funding for libraries. Missouri House Republicans last month agreed to cut the entire $4.5 million in state aid that public libraries were slated to get next year, in retaliation for Missouri librarians suing over a new state law banning sexually explicit materials from schools.

The state’s spending plan will still need to be approved by the Missouri Senate before it heads to Gov. Mike Parson’s desk. The state Senate is poised to restore the state funding for libraries.

Libraries risk losing state funding by violating Ashcroft’s rule.

After receiving criticism that a previous version of the rule would have allowed anyone to restrict children’s access to library materials, Ashcroft’s office revised it so that only a parent of a minor can limit access.

“Glad to see our efforts to protect children from obscene materials move forward,” Ashcroft said in a tweet. “We are not defunding libraries and we are not banning books, contrary to what the left and MSM say. We are merely asking our libraries to shield our kids from inappropriate content.”

Croan argued the rule creates “confusion and concern around how it will be enforced” and that “the rule could be enforced differently from one administration to the next.”

Kansas City area libraries already have policies for determining what materials go into their children’s sections. And they have processes for allowing residents to challenge materials. Kansas City Public Library, for example, has those policies already available on its website.

Librarians say they vet books based on content, publisher guidelines, maturity levels and a code of ethics, to ensure materials are age appropriate. Many say they fear prosecution and harassment in response to the rule.

“Telling libraries to choose books carefully is like telling a grocery store to sell fruit. They already do that. You don’t get to act like you won the War on Nutrition by ordering people to do what they are already doing,” the Missouri Library Association tweeted.

The association said the new rule will especially overburden small, rural libraries that do not have the funds or staff to maintain separate profiles on every child or websites to post policies.

“No library can monitor the guidelines for hundreds of individual students,” the Missouri Library Association said in a tweet. “Clearly the goal is to get us to remove any objected-to titles from the start. But that’s not how responsibility works. If YOU want to monitor what YOUR kid reads, then YOU need to monitor it. Not us.”

JoDonn Chaney, a spokesman for Ashcroft, previously told The Star that those state dollars are “generally a small portion” of a library’s budget. Librarians argue the cost to comply with the rule would be greater than the state funding received.

“We still are left in the dark on how to determine that a material is approved or not approved by the minor’s parent/guardian,” Croan said. “Either there are major costs and barriers to access involved in implementing a system for every single parent/guardian in our communities or we continue with what MO libraries have always said, that it’s the parent’s/guardian’s right and choice to be involved in what their child checks out but not that of another parent’s/guardian’s child.”

Ashcroft has promoted the new rule as GOP lawmakers push a deluge of legislation curbing LGBTQ rights, curriculum on race and diversity and equity initiatives. And it comes as conservative groups and lawmakers attempt to ban children’s books, mostly featuring LGBTQ characters or themes about race, across the state and country.

Several Kansas City area schools this fall pulled books off of library shelves, in response to a new Missouri law banning sexually explicit material from schools. Librarians or other school employees who violate the law could be charged with a misdemeanor, risking up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine.

Missouri librarians are suing over the law, leading House Republicans to push for eliminating their entire state aid.

Locally, the Lee’s Summit school district has spent nearly $19,000 reviewing the first half of the 90 books challenged this year by a small group looking to ban library materials. The district has decided to retain all 52 books reviewed so far.

And the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has sued the Independence school district over its book removal policy, after the school board banned the children’s book “Cats vs. Robots #1: This Is War” from elementary school libraries because it features a nonbinary character.

The Star’s Kacen Bayless contributed reporting.

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Sarah Ritter covers K-12 education for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.

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