Missouri, Florida and the Criminalization of Libraries

Censorship, Legislation

By: Kate Lechtenberg

If some state politicians have their way, some public events and popular books may come with criminal consequences if you live in Missouri or Florida. Here’s a quick overview of the issues in each state, followed by a list of five easy things you can do to counter legalistic overreach like these examples from Missouri and Florida.

Missouri: Criminal consequences for “age-inappropriate” programs and materials

The proposed law: Rep. Ben Baker of Missouri proposed the “Parental Oversight of Libraries” Act. Although he claims that his goal was not to censor books but to put a stop to “age-inappropriate” programs like Drag Queen Story Hour, the bill is currently written to say that “materials” (which would include books) are subject to new parental advisory boards.

Potential criminal penalty: Misdemeanor conviction, up to $500 fine or one year in prison

Prison bars in foreground focus, cell blurred in background

In support of criminal penalties for libraries and librarians: Rep. Baker: “I just think that there’s a line between what is open and available access for our children…I just think that we need to be careful about funding something with our taxpayer dollars without parental consent.”

In support of intellectual freedom in Missouri:

  • Samantha Sowa, Missouri library patron: “Um I think that personally, education should be available and if you don’t want to read something don’t pick it up and read it, um everybody should be able to choose what they want to read whether it be against someone else’s beliefs because we don’t all have the same beliefs” (KNWA News)
  • Drag queen, Tanner Rambo: “Any kind of comment that these story hours are somehow involving nudity or in any way comparable to strippers is just completely erroneous.” (Newsweek)
  • Tony Messenger, St. Louis Dispatch: “Libraries don’t belong to parents. They belong to taxpayers, to the community, to all of us. And they exist to expand our minds, not limit them.”

Florida: Florida Citizens Alliance wants to prosecute schools with LGBTQ and sexual books  

The proposal: The Florida Citizens Alliance argues that the state’s obscenity laws are not currently being enforced, and they have issued a list of books that schools should remove or face prosecution by the Attorney General. 

Potential criminal penalty: Purchasing books deemed to be pornography would be a felony.

In support of criminal penalties for libraries and librarians: 

Florida Citizens’ Alliance: “We demand that the Attorney General enforce existing anti-pornography statutes … and that the legislature take whatever action is necessary to strengthen existing laws that are being completely ignored by public schools!” (Tampa Bay Times, January, 2020).

Gavel on pedestal with two books stacked in background

Rep. Mike Hill: “The purpose of the bill is to remove pornography out of our public schools, which is existing there today. I’ve seen it firsthand…It is simply trying to protect our children.” (Tampa Bay Times, March, 2019)

In support of intellectual freedom:

  • Kara Gross, president of ACLU of Florida: “Book bans are the worst kind of censorship, particularly when they are discriminatory and veiled as ‘protecting’ children. The fact of the matter is that LGBTQ children attend school and that all children have family members, friends, neighbors, and teachers who identify as LGBTQ. Removing books from the shelves doesn’t change that fact and only serves to erase the LGBTQ community, perpetuate ignorance and stereotypes, and stigmatize children and their families. Libraries and schools should reflect the diversity of all individuals and celebrate love instead of perpetuating hate.” (WTSP News)
  • Judy Adkins, executive director of the Atheists of Florida: “While we personally may not like the content of some of these books, should they be banned for everyone?” Judy Adkins, the Atheists’ executive director, said in an email to reporters. “Because they are objected to on religious grounds, should they be banned for all? (Tampa Bay Times)

What can you do?

Sometimes these news stories seem ridiculous, appalling, or impossible, but as someone who reads the news frequently, I can attest that they happen with alarming frequency. If you can take the time to take one small step, we can all work together to take small steps toward increased intellectual freedom.

  1. Missouri and Florida citizens can contact their representatives in support of intellectual freedom and free libraries.
  2. Supporters of intellectual freedom everywhere can proactively review policies in their libraries and schools and compare them with best practice policies in the ALA Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries.
  3. Teachers can work for proactive communication with parents and communities to discuss book selections and offer opportunities to talk about required books and discuss possible alternatives.
  4. Parents and community members in support of intellectual freedom can join the conversation and remind those who would criminalize libraries and librarians that parents have the right to guide or restrict their children’s reading choices but not the choices of other children.
  5. Talk with your friends, neighbors, and family about the issues. The more we talk about the importance of the freedom to read with a variety of people with a variety of views, the more likely it is that when intellectual freedom challenges arise in our own backyards, they will be met with committed intellectual freedom supporters ready to speak up in favor of freedom, access, and openness.

Kate Lechtenberg

Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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