A library is pictured in a stock photo.
According to the rule, any member of the public would be able to present book challenges the material being provided in publicly funded libraries, including books, presentations or events. (File photo)

Because of a Missouri law that took effect in August, books that contain “explicit sexual materials” are banned from school libraries and classrooms. Now, the state is taking another step toward book challenges— this time involving public libraries and without a vote from the legislature.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft on Nov. 15 opened a 30-day comment period on a rule change that would block state funding to libraries that have books or materials that could appeal to potential sexual interests of minors. The proposed rule, Ashcroft says, is intended to “protect minors from non-age appropriate materials.”

According to the rule, any member of the public would be able to propose book challenges material being provided in publicly funded libraries, including books, presentations or events. 

The Missouri Association of School Librarians, which opposes the rule change, said in a statement that the measure flies in the face of ideas of local control that are often touted in Jefferson City. 

“By imposing a state-level administrative rule regarding what can and cannot be purchased with certain funds, the Secretary is thereby contradicting the very idea of local control,” the group wrote. 

Another group, the Missouri Library Association, warned that librarians could leave the field “in droves” if the change takes effect. It warned that the change and administrative lift from book challenges could harm rural and urban libraries, which rely the most heavily on state funding. 

The proposed change can be found online, listed as “15 CSR 30-200.015 Library Certification Requirement for the Protection of Minors.” 

How to comment on state rules changes 

State rules are managed by the state registrar’s office, which has open comment periods for rules changes every two weeks. 

Rules changes can be submitted by any state agency, but must have at least 30 days of time during which  the public can comment.

When sending a public comment, be sure to include the name of the rule (for example, 15 CSR 30-200.015 Library Certification Requirement for the Protection of Minors) in the subject line or prominently at the top of your comment. 

Send comments by mail to the Office of the Missouri Secretary of State, P.O. Box 1767, Jefferson City, MO 65102, or by email to comments@sos.mo.gov.  

The rule is solidified no later than 90 days from the date that public comments are allowed, and becomes effective 30 days after the rule is finalized. 

Ashcroft’s proposal came in the form of a state rule change, which would be as enforceable as a state law, similar to the measure, SB 775, that went into effect in August. 

“It’s kind of more insidious and it’s more disruptive to a broader range of libraries than SB 775,” Joe Kohlburn, the intellectual freedom chair of the Missouri Library Association, told The Beacon. 

“The problem is it sort of redefines what the criteria should be for selection, and it’s very clunky, and frankly, it’s kind of incompetent. This is not based on the way that libraries work.”

The public comment period for his proposed change closes on Dec. 15. After that, the secretary of state’s office, which manages the state library and its funding, has three months to incorporate feedback, solidify the rule as it’s currently written or rescind the change entirely. Although it has solicited public comment, Ashcroft’s office isn’t required to make changes to the rule based on the public’s responses.

Under Ashcroft’s proposal, libraries would write and adopt policies that determine what material they provide is “age appropriate.” State funds could not be used to purchase materials that appeal to “prurient,” or sexual, interests of minors. 

“Yes, we want to make sure libraries have the resources and materials they need for their constituents, but we also want our children to be ‘children’ a little longer than a pervasive culture may often dictate,” Ashcroft said in a news release. 

According to PEN America, a national nonprofit that supports free expression of speech and literary culture, nearly 270 books are banned in at least 11 school districts across Missouri, thanks to the new August law. 

The crackdown on school and library materials isn’t confined to Missouri. According to PEN, 31 other states have had bans in place across different school districts

Ashcroft, who is said to be thinking of running for governor in 2024, says on his website that supporting libraries has been one of his top accomplishments during his time as secretary of state.

“I have been a strong proponent of funding for public libraries, including the Wolfner Library, which is housed at the secretary of state’s main office. I am committed to working with our library directors and staff across the state to better meet their needs,” his website reads. 

But the Missouri LIbrary Association believes that the rule would do more harm than good, and says it disregards processes already in place to ensure that materials on the shelves are age appropriate. 

Some provisions in the proposed rule are already considered “best practices” by libraries, the group said. It added that processes are already in place to allow someone to present book challenges or challenges to library content, but they are rarely used.

“The latest proposed rule is a solution in search of a problem,” the group wrote in a blog post. “Indeed, many of our latest qualms about school board and library board meetings would be assuaged if people actually followed the procedures in place for challenges rather than circumventing them and going straight to the board to complain.” 

The group says the label “prurient interests” will be used “almost exclusively” to remove, restrict or label materials that feature stories centering on historically marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ population, racial and ethnic minorities and women.

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MEG CUNNINGHAM is The Beacon’s Missouri Statehouse reporter. Previously, Meg worked as a national politics reporter for ABC News in Washington, D.C., where she covered campaigns and elections. Meg is...