Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 10, 2020
No matter how much we hear about “culture wars” of the Donald Trump era, it still seems momentarily shocking when we find ourselves in a skirmish. You shake your head and look again because it couldn’t have been true.
A new bill proposed in Missouri aims to prevent inappropriate sexual content from getting into the hands of kids, but critics are warning it amounts to censoring and could land public librarians in jail, The Hill.com and other news outlets informed us.
Republican Missouri state Rep. Ben Baker argues that children need protection as they visit public libraries.
The bill would ban libraries that receive state funding from allowing minors access to “age-inappropriate sexual material.” To identify what that content is, the bill would include the creation of “parental library review boards” made up of five locally elected community members. The boards would then review what content it considers appropriate.
Under the bill, librarians who “willfully” violate the rule could be fined $500 or face up to a year in jail.
“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 told local news station KOAM. “Unfortunately, there are some libraries in the state of Missouri that have done this. And that’s a problem.”
Critics, including PEN America, warn, however, that the bill amounts to censorship. PEN America’s deputy director of free expression research and policy, James Tager, said the policy was an attempt at “book banning.”
As I flipped by the report, I was hoping that the Missouri legislator was concerned that children are not reading enough, or that the legislature had recognized that our public libraries are in need of more support or even that he was concerned about how much attention at libraries had moved from books to videos.
But no. Apparently, as PEN noted, this is an effort to remove book that might wrestle with coming of age sexual themes, books uplifting LGBTQ characters, books addressing issues such as sexual assault.
It turns out that Representative Baker, who was elected in 2018, is also a minister, missionary, former professor and former dean of students at Ozark Bible Institute in Neosho. He also owns a construction business that specializes in artisan trim-work. Baker serves on the board of his church, Bible Holiness Assembly of God, and he a past board president of Care Net Pregnancy Resource Center. He is also involved with Ozark Christian Missions and has led mission trips to India, Africa, and Central America. He holds a bachelor of arts degree from Ozark Bible Institute.
So, this is a full-fledged culture war undertaking.
Under the proposal, locally elected “parental library review boards” would be permitted to unilaterally remove books they decide are sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate for young readers from library shelves. There are no guidelines included. There is no indication that books about guns and violence should be removed, or whether it is as a result of illustrations or language choices or overall theme that would be influence the judgment to remove a book.
These parent boards would hold public hearings to receive suggestions as to possible inappropriate books, and would have the authority to order the library to remove any such material from access by minors.
Libraries that allow children to borrow books that have been banned or whose access has been restricted would risk losing state funding, and librarians could be ordered to pay fines of up to $500 or sentenced to jail time for up to a year. The Missouri Library Association a non-profit which advocates for library service and librarians, said in a statement that it “will always stand against censorship and for the freedom to read, and therefore opposes Missouri House Bill 2044.”
PEN America’s Tager said, “every reader and writer in the country should be horrified, absolutely horrified, at this bill.”
Baker, the legislator, noted that his measure would not entirely ban books from the library but would only keep them out of 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 argued. “I just think that we need to be careful about funding something with our taxpayer dollars without parental consent.”
That made me wonder whether the legislator actually has been to the library. What does he think librarians are doing? “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,” said Cynthia Dudenhoffer, president of the Missouri Library Association.
In honesty, I can say I am a volunteer reading tutor in a New York City public elementary school. The issues we face are about getting students to want to read, and to do so fluently. The last thing we tutors worry about is whether we agree with the characters in the books we actually get through.
If anything, I’d like to recruit Baker to worry about whether the books our children are exposed to actually reflect the country as a whole rather than the people within sight every day in his small town.
PEN America’s Tager said, “every reader and writer in the country should be horrified, absolutely horrified, at this bill.” PEN America, an organization of writers and readers formed in 1922, has fought against book bans for almost 100 years.