Proposed Missouri Bill Targeting Children’s Books Could Land Librarians in Jail

The board would focus on rooting out any "age-inappropriate sexual material" for minors, defined as depictions or descriptions of nudity or sexuality that is “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community.”

The board would focus on rooting out any "age-inappropriate sexual material" for minors, defined as depictions or descriptions of nudity or sexuality that is “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community.” Shutterstock

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A bill proposing parental review boards to identify “inappropriate” sexual material in children’s books would impose hefty fines—or even jail time—on librarians who don’t comply with their decisions.

Children’s books that contain sexual material could become harder to find at local public libraries in Missouri under a new bill that proposes creating “parental review boards” to examine books and other materials.

Sponsored by Republican state Rep. Ben Baker, the legislation would create a review board of five elected community members who would oversee the content in the children’s sections of their local library. The board would focus on rooting out any "age-inappropriate sexual material" for minors, defined as depictions or descriptions of nudity or sexuality that is “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community” and “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”

According to the bill, which has not yet been heard by a committee, librarians would be explicitly banned from serving on the boards and board determinations would be not subject to review by the library or state. Penalties for librarians who violate the boards’ decisions would include a $500 fine or a jail sentence up to a year.

Baker did not respond to a request for comment, but in an interview with local news station KOAM, he said that access to materials he deemed inappropriate is “a problem” in some Missouri libraries. “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 gonna be exposed to something that is objectionable material,” Baker said.

Paul Ringel, a professor of history at High Point University who specializes in children’s literature, said that the Missouri bill is unusual. “Most of the time, campaigns like this focus on specific books, rather than a broad, systemic plan,” he said. “But this is a cyclical process. We regularly get pushback against children’s books, magazines, comic books—this is a long-term issue.” 

Ringel also said that the system proposed in Missouri, with a board of elected community members, doesn’t make sense. “I think you’d want people who have some kind of expertise, like librarians, educators, or child psychologists to be talking about what is or isn’t age-appropriate,” he said. “I wouldn’t want five random people telling me what’s best for my kids.”

Cynthia Dudenhoffer, the president of the Missouri Library Association, said the group will fight the legislation. “Public libraries exist to provide equitable access to information to all of its users, as it is key to having an informed populace. Public libraries already have procedures in place to assist patrons in protecting their own children, while not infringing upon the rights of other patrons or restricting materials,” Dudenhoffer said in a statement. “The Missouri Library Association will always stand against censorship and for the freedom to read, and therefore opposes Missouri House Bill 2044.”

In his interview with KOAM, Baker clarified that his measure would not ban books, but would require certain books to be removed from the children’s section. “If the adult wanted to, and said I’m okay with my child reading this or looking at this, then they could check that out, and have that available for their child," Baker said.

On their website, the American Library Association states that they are opposed to creating “restricted access” systems like the one proposed in Missouri. “Physical restrictions and content filtering of library resources and services may generate psychological, service, or language skills barriers to access as well,” the website reads. “Because restricted materials often deal with controversial, unusual, or sensitive subjects, having to ask a library worker for access to them may be embarrassing or inhibiting for patrons desiring access.”

Because the language of the bill is vague on what type of material would be considered sexually inappropriate for children, Ringel said he fears that it could be selectively used against books that depict LGBTQ characters. He pointed to a similar situation that played out in Loudoun County, Virginia late last year, when parents objected to books like Heather Has Two Mommies, which depicts lesbian characters and was made available in elementary and middle school libraries. 

At a community meeting about the books, one parent said that the protest was not targeted. “They say we’re attacking LGBTQ [people], let’s not call it that, let’s just call it inappropriate books,” she said. “We celebrate diversity as parents, but we want to remove the content that we wouldn’t even send our child to the movies [to see] or listen to the radio.”

The ALA warns that selectively removing materials that are objectionable to some can create a ripple effect where “potential library users may be predisposed to think of labeled and filtered resources as objectionable and be discouraged from asking for access to them.”

Ringel said that legislators should consider whether a policy like the one proposed would do more harm than good. “You can think about whether Heather Has Two Mommies is age appropriate for a six-year-old,” he said. “But you should also think about the potential damage to LGBTQ kids or kids with two moms when these books are taken off the shelves and they don’t have exposure to stories that reflect their experience.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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