In a file photo, two children and a woman look at book shelves in a library.
The Missouri Senate gave initial approval to restoring library funding in the state. (File photo)

Library professionals across Missouri have spent months pushing back against actions being taken in Jefferson City. And while one immediate funding threat has eased, librarians are still working to inform Missourians about a political landscape that has become newly hostile.

Despite a torrent of objections from across the state, libraries in Missouri that want to receive state funding will have to follow the protocols outlined in a new rule proposed by Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. The rule, which will take effect on May 30, among other things requires libraries to post information about their collections online and create a process for citizens to challenge materials or events that are available to children. Libraries will also have to obtain permission from parents before granting materials or access to minors.

Another threat to library funding came from the Missouri House, which stripped all funding for libraries out of its version of the 2024 state budget. The cuts were retribution for a lawsuit filed earlier this year that challenges a 2022 Missouri law regarding what materials can be made available. 

Librarians and their advocates finally received some good news this week when the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to restore $4.5 million in funding, to the state’s libraries. Sen. Lincoln Hough, the committee’s chairman, inserted the funding in the Senate’s version of the 2024 budget after it was stripped in the House. 

“I think it’s a small dollar amount,” Hough, a Springfield Republican, said during an interview on “This Week in Missouri Politics.” “I think it was kind of a punitive cut that the House made and I believe we’ll be putting it back in.” 

Senate Appropriations moves to restore library funding

The threat to library funding first came from House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, a Republican from Carthage. He pointed to a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, representing librarians in the state. The lawsuit challenged a 2022 law, SB 775, which bans sexually explicit materials in school libraries and allows residents to challenge books that are available in schools.

As a result of the statute’s language, which was authored by Harrisonville Sen. Rick Brattin, a Republican, school librarians were threatened with jail sentences up to a year and fines up to $2,000 if they were found in violation. The Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, alleging that the bill’s “vague language” would have an overly chilling effect on library operations across the state. 

“The Missouri Association of School Librarians strives to uphold the core tenets of school librarianship, including both intellectual freedom and the freedom to read,” Melissa Corey, the association’s current president, said in a news release. “School librarians in Missouri serve as trained, certified experts when curating developmentally appropriate collections for our students. This statute has created a chilling effect on school library collection development, resulting in fewer representative books within our collections, due to fear of prosecution.”

Smith said he didn’t believe state funds should be used to litigate the law. The Missouri Library Association said the ACLU is representing the library organizations on a pro bono basis and no state money is being used to fund the lawsuit, which is pending in Jackson County Circuit Court. 

In his interview with “This Week in Missouri Politics,” Hough said that “libraries are more than just books on shelves.” Among other roles, they help job seekers who need access to computers and internet, he noted.

The Senate committee’s version of the budget will need to be approved by the full body and again by a joint committee made up of members of the House and Senate. 

Otter Bowman, the current president of the Missouri Library Association, told The Beacon that smaller, more rural libraries across the state rely heavily on state and federal funding due to their smaller tax bases. 

“They’re getting their primary income from their property tax and they’re not bringing in as much property tax,” Bowman said. “So they really rely on that state aid to help make ends meet. And they also get matching funds from the federal government. If there’s no state aid to match, then they would lose that as well.” 

Concerns over Ashcroft’s library rule before it goes into effect

Days before the Senate restored library funding in its initial look at the budget, a new state rule was approved without receiving testimony from the public in front of lawmakers. The rule will require procedures intended to allow parents of minors to challenge events or materials that are not deemed age-appropriate. 

Once it goes into effect at the end of May, the rule, 15 CSR 30-200.015 Library Certification Requirement for the Protection of Minors, will allow parents or guardians of a minor to challenge materials or events at a public library. 

Ashcroft, whose office administers the state’s public library system, proposed the rule in mid-November and opened it up for a 30-day public comment period. Over that time, his office received over 20,000 public comments about the proposal. Most of them were negative, Ashcroft’s spokesperson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Because the change came from a proposed rule, it did not require a vote from the legislature or the public. 

The original proposed rule has little variation from the final, approved version. The proposed version asked libraries to remove materials that may appeal to the “prurient interests” of a minor. The final version replaces “prurient interests” with “​​material that constitutes ‘child pornography,’ is ‘pornographic for minors,’ or is ‘obscene.’”

When he entered the new rule in the Missouri Register, Ashcroft took issue with numerous comments alleging that the changes amounted to a book ban.

“The proposed rule is not a ‘book ban,’” he states. “Put simply, refusing to subsidize a particular activity with public monies does not violate the First Amendment.”

The rule will require libraries to document the policies they use to add books to their library and ways they ensure those materials are age-appropriate.  While those policies are already widely practiced, according to the Missouri Library Association, libraries will now be required to publish large amounts of information, like collection policy or status updates on book challenges, on their websites. For smaller libraries, that can be a burden, Bowman said.

“From our perspective, I think that’s been the toughest thing,” Bowman said.

While all libraries have written policy explanations, not all of them have websites, Bowman explained. Ashcroft’s rule, he said, “just sort of assumes a lot about our smaller libraries.” Librarians across the state also said they didn’t hear from Ashcroft before he introduced his rule.

“The library associations were upset that the secretary of state didn’t approach us first and try to talk through some of the concerns that he had and tried to figure out a way to make this make more sense for everyone,” Bowman said. Despite attempts to clarify “prurient interests” in the rule, the vagueness of that and phrases like “age inappropriate materials” could lead librarians to self-censor, Bowman added.

“It’s just vague enough that a lot of libraries are kind of leaning towards self-censorship, like, ‘We’ll just get rid of those books so that we can eliminate all of the questions,’” Bowman said. “But that’s wrong. We don’t want to censor our collections like that because the books are there for a reason.” 

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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...