January 15, 2020; Washington Post
Power to the parents! Or at least to those specific parents selected by their local city councils to represent the morals and values of their communities. That seems to be the essence of the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, or House Bill 2044, which was introduced on January 8, 2020, into the Missouri House of Representatives by Rep. Ben Baker (R). With a background as a minister, missionary, and former dean at Ozark Bible Institute, this conservative legislator brings a strong interest in the moral upbringing of the children in Missouri and the role of parents in this process.
PEN America, a group of writers and readers who have organized to fight censorship, issued a press release calling this proposed law “a transparent, shameful attempt to legalize book banning in public libraries within the state.” The reason for their strong reaction can be seen in the content of the proposed law.
The law adds provisions to the state’s funding laws for public libraries. It creates five-member “parental library review boards” that are elected at a town meeting by a majority of whomever is there. They, in turn, are empowered to hold hearings and elicit from the community suggestions on books that are inappropriate for minors, based on any criterion, including sexual content and literary value. Librarians are specifically prohibited from serving on these boards, even if they live in and are parents in the community.
But what seems to outrage those who come down on the side of the First Amendment and who oppose censorship is the final paragraph of this law. It states:
Any public library personnel who willfully neglects or refuses to perform any duty imposed on a public library under this section, or who willfully violates any provision of this section, is guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year.
Reactions have been strong and swift, and if this legislation passes, lawsuits will certainly follow. The Freedom to Read Foundation, a part of the American Library Association, is poised to litigate this and get the backing of brave librarians in Missouri who might stand up against this law, as it has done for years. Freedom to Read would be joined by other organizations like PEN America and the ACLU, who stand shoulder to shoulder on these issues. It is unlikely that even one Parent Library Review Board would be formed before a lawsuit would be filed.
In responding to this, James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America, said in a press release, “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.”
Passing judgment on what is and what is not appropriate for children to read is a task that teachers, librarians, and parents all struggle with. Handing that task to one segment of a community, one which may not represent all the voices and perspectives of the adults who care about those children or understand the literary value of what is being judged, is censorship, and sets a dangerous precedent for literary freedom.—Carole Levine