By Claire Booth
The book censors are at it again. This time, instead of groups taking aim at specific books (Harry Potter, To Kill a Mockingbird, Two Boys Kissing), one Missouri legislator is gunning for an entire set of people. Librarians.
Republican Rep. Ben Baker has just introduced the “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act,” which I will henceforth refer to as POOPLA because that’s what it is—a complete shit law.
The proposed legislation would establish local parental library review boards that could ban any book that has “age-inappropriate sexual material.” Any library personnel who don’t cooperate will be convicted of a misdemeanor and either fined or imprisoned.
Each board would be made up of five members who must be residents of a library’s geographical area who bother to show up at a specific meeting and garner the most votes from those present—so not all voters in an area, just the folks who are in the room. To me, it seems like it’d be pretty easy to stack a meeting with people who have a lot of time on their hands and censorship in their hearts.
As a reporter, I’ve covered governments that do this. An item gets added to the agenda at the last minute; put as the last item of a long, boring meeting; and when it finally gets addressed, only the few people in the know are still around to vote. It’s classic circumvent-the-public governing.
Now I can just hear POOPLA-ists saying to all of us pesky free-speech, equal-access harridans, “Well, if you really cared, you’d make the effort to show up and try to get on the board.” Well, Ol’ Ben thought of that horrifying possibility and has surgically eliminated his biggest threat. He specifically excludes library employees from serving on the boards. For good measure he throws in anyone who works the state or any of its political subdivisions. That’s not very many people, right?
Librarians across the country are condemning the proposed legislation—loudly. The Missouri Library Association points out that public libraries already have procedures to help patrons protect their own children while not infringing upon the rights of other patrons or restricting access to materials. “Missouri Library Association will always oppose legislation that infringes on these rights,” the organization’s statement says. I’ll echo that with my own words—feel free to parent your own children, but do not try to parent mine.
“This is a shockingly transparent attempt to legalize book banning in the state of Missouri,” James Tager, deputy director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America, said in a statement. “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.”
Baker is just a year into his first term as a Missouri state representative. He represents a district that’s only about 90 miles west of Branson in the southern part of the state. The whole region is very conservative, but his move seems like it might be too severe a move for even this area.
“We are against censorship in every way,” Carrie Cline, the director of Baker’s local library, told the Neosho (Mo.) Daily News. “It is YOUR job to parent your children. We will not tell you or your children that you cannot check something out … we are very proud of our collection and will fight to preserve your right to read whatever you wish for your family.”
If you live in Missouri, please contact your representative and let her or him know that you support free speech, equal access, and the rights of librarians. You can enter your zip code here to find your legislator’s contact information.