October 1, 2023

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s new rule governing libraries went into effect Tuesday, threatening to pull public libraries’ state funding over providing minors with books considered pornographic or obscene.

The rule’s implementation sparked confusion in libraries across the state, where employees feared how it would be enforced and whether they were at risk of losing funding. Libraries, according to the rule, are required to submit their new written policies each year by July 31, when libraries apply for state funding.

Ashcroft, a Republican who is running for governor in 2024, last fall proposed the rule, which prohibits public library employees from giving minors access to materials without first receiving parental permission. His office received roughly 20,000 comments on the rule, many of which argued it would lead to book banning and political censorship.

“The rule has and continues to create mass confusion in libraries throughout the state as they try to interpret and determine what actions they can and should take to ensure they continue to receive their funding,” Cody Croan, chair of the Missouri Library Association Legislative Committee, said in an email Tuesday.

Ashcroft pushed back on the criticism on Tuesday, saying the rule creates measures to protect kids from non-age-appropriate materials.

“Supporting the efforts of libraries across our state has been a priority of mine since day one – we have been able to provide millions of dollars to libraries through grants and other funding,” he said in an emailed statement. “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.”

Libraries, according to the rule, are prohibited from using state funds to buy materials for minors that could be considered pornography or obscene under state law. A previous version of the rule stated funds could not be used to purchase materials that appeal to the “prurient interest of a minor,” but Ashcroft’s office revised the language after receiving criticism that it was too vague.

Croan told The Star Tuesday that the lack of guidance on the rule sets libraries up to fail. The rule, Croan said, would allow Ashcroft to decide to pull funding from libraries based on materials he does not agree with and his own personal interpretation of the rule.

Croan said some libraries in Missouri are considering expiring kids’ library cards to prevent unauthorized access to materials and requiring parents to come back and reauthorize the card.

“That is a huge barrier this rule has made librarians think they have to follow in order to keep their funding,” he said. “What costs will that create? It means children in Missouri who had access to their library will no longer have access until a parent can come back in to get them registered again.”

Kansas City area libraries already have policies for determining what materials go into their children’s sections, according to previous reporting. And they have processes for allowing residents to challenge materials.

Kansas City Public Library, for example, makes those policies available on its website.

Anne Kniggendorf, a spokesperson for the library, said in an email Tuesday that a staff committee was reviewing Ashcroft’s rule to determine how it would impact services and funding. She said the library did not plan to retire children’s library cards.

“We strongly believe that our current policies provide free and open access to all materials,” she said.

Ashcroft’s rule comes amid a larger culture war fight across the country as GOP lawmakers and conservative parent groups challenge diversity initiatives, school curriculum on the history of race in America and library books.

Missouri House Republicans this year unsuccessfully tried to cut from the state budget the entire $4.5 million in state aid that libraries were slated to get next year in retaliation for a lawsuit challenging a state law passed last year that bans sexually explicit material from schools. The ACLU of Missouri filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Missouri Library Association and Missouri Association of School Librarians.

Parents have also attempted to remove several school library books they call pornographic, ranging from classics such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Margaret Atwood’s bestselling “The Handmaid’s Tale,” to books with LGBTQ themes, including “Flamer” by Mike Curato and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson.

The rule requires libraries to create written collection development policies addressing the age appropriateness of materials. Libraries must allow parents to limit their children’s access to materials.

Parents are emboldened to challenge materials, displays or events if they think they’re not age appropriate. The result of any challenge must be displayed on the library’s website.

After receiving criticism that a previous version of the rule would have allowed anyone to restrict children’s access to library materials, Ashcroft’s office revised it so that only a parent of a minor can limit access.

“When state dollars are involved, we want to bring back local control and parental involvement in determining what children are exposed to,” Ashcroft said in a statement to The Star Tuesday. “Foremost, we want to protect our children. One of the best ways to do that is by making sure parents know what their child is exposed to.”

Croan said Ashcroft’s rule was a form of censorship, taking away people’s access to resources. While the rule does not directly remove materials, it removes people from the library, he said.

House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, a Springfield Democrat who is weighing a run for governor in 2024, told The Star on Tuesday that Ashcroft’s rule was pandering to a small group of people. She said it has led to “headaches about books being banned” and “has made Missouri a punching bag for news outlets across the world.”

“Our libraries should be a beacon of education full of resources for the entire community to learn and improve their lives, not political casualties at the hands of far-right extremists,” she said.

The Star’s Sarah Ritter contributed reporting.