The state of Missouri has faced countrywide backlash since announcing the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act or House Bill 2044, a new bill that would allow state officials to ban books, defund libraries and arrest librarians.
Sponsored by minister and conservative Republican Rep. Ben Baker, the bill aims to create parental library review boards that would have immense power over what books would be allowed in state-funded libraries.
The elected, five-member panels would take suggestions from the public about what books to ban but ultimately would have control over which books are allowed in libraries. According to the law, any library that violates the law could be completely defunded and any librarians who try to circumvent it could face a $500 fine or up to a year in prison.
Baker added provisions that would allow the boards to remove anything they believe is “age-inappropriate sexual material.”“This is a shockingly transparent attempt to legalize book banning in the state of Missouri. 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,” said James Tager, deputy director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America, in a statement.
According to an interview with local Missouri news outlet The Springfield News-Leader, Baker wanted to write the bill after reading news reports of "drag queen story hours" that sometimes take place at public libraries.
“I’m trying to figure out a way for parents to have recourse if something's happened and actually the library board is saying 'Hey, we're OK with this' or even promoting it, which has happened,” Baker claimed.
Baker is well known in the state for pushing religiously backed bills, and last year he caused another firestorm with a bill that would have forced public schools to create Bible-based courses for K-12 students.
Librarians in the state, as well as LGBTQ activists, have come out fiercely against the bill, telling news outlets that it was tantamount to censorship. The drag queen story hours were a way for positive messages about LGBTQ people to be spread amongst young people, according to Shira Berkowitz, a spokeswoman for the LGBTQ advocacy group PROMO.
“We think that visibility is really, really important. Especially in a state where LGBTQ people can still be denied housing or fired because of who they are,” she told The Springfield News-Leader.
Both Missouri Library Association President Cynthia Dudenhoffer and associate director at the Springfield-Greene County Library District Jim Schmidt both agreed that the bill was completely unacceptable and out of bounds, especially considering the harsh penalties listed in the law.
Schmidt said most districts in the state already had local governing boards that held public meetings and allowed the public to question their actions, making the need for another board redundant.
“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. Missouri Library Association will always oppose legislation that infringes on these rights,” Dudenhoffer said.
When pressed about the harsh penalties in his bill, Baker admitted that he will probably need to rewrite them. But he alleged that he "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.”
According to The Guardian, book titles like Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak have all faced scrutiny and criticism in Missouri over the last decade over the content inside their pages.
“Every reader and writer in the country should be horrified, absolutely horrified, at this bill. The fact that a librarian could actually be imprisoned under this act for following his or her conscience and refusing to block minors from access to a book, that tells you all you need to know about the suitability of this act within a democratic society,” Tager said in his statement.