Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Book Banners At It Again

Last week, a number of news outlets covered an outrageous bill proposed to the State Legislature of Missouri. The bill would empower a "parental oversight board" to determine whether books stocked by public libraries are "potentially inappropriate" for minors. So basically, this would be an elected panel with the power to ban books from libraries. It should come as no surprise to any of my readers to find out that I vehemently oppose such a plan. It's especially heinous in that it proposes fines and jail time (!) for librarians who refuse to comply with the law.

Under the parental oversight of public libraries bill, which has been proposed by Missouri Republican Ben Baker, panels of parents would be elected to evaluate whether books are appropriate for children. Public hearings would then be held by the boards to ask for suggestions of potentially inappropriate books, with public libraries that allow minors access to such titles to have their funding stripped. Librarians who refuse to comply could be fined and imprisoned for up to one year.

“The main thing is, I want to be able to take my kids to a library and make sure they’re in a safe environment, and that they’re not gonna be exposed to something that is objectionable material,” Baker told a local news station. “Unfortunately, there are some libraries in the state of Missouri that have done this. And that’s a problem.” Titles including Sherman Alexie’s award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, a young adult novel about the rape of a teenager, have all come under fire in Missouri over the last decade.

PEN America’s deputy director of free expression research and policy, James Tager, called Baker’s bill a “shockingly transparent attempt to legalise book banning in the state of Missouri”. He said it was “clearly aimed at empowering small groups of parents to appoint themselves as censors over their state’s public libraries” and said that books containing sexual themes, LGBTQ characters and exploring the impact of sexual assault could be “on the chopping block if this bill is passed”.

“Every reader and writer in the country should be horrified, absolutely horrified, at this bill,” said Tager. “The fact that a librarian could actually be imprisoned for following his or her conscience and refusing to block minors from access to a book, that tells you all you need to know about the suitability of this act within a democratic society.” The Missouri Library Association said it was opposing the bill, because it “will always stand against censorship and for the freedom to read”.

“Public libraries already have procedures in place to assist patrons in protecting their own children while not infringing on the rights of other patrons or restricting materials,” it added.

This law has so many problems that it's hard to see it surviving a constitutional challenge. But better still, it should never be passed in the first place. Public libraries don't stock pornography, so that's clearly not what this law is about. It's about forcing the public square to be compliant to the whims of the very most conservative parents. This is even more troubling given that the most conservative parents are also likely to be the same kind of conservative Christians who want their children to live in an entirely sanitized world free from the influence of any religions besides their own.

Yes, this is basically a slippery slope argument, but I think there's precedent if you look at efforts by those same Christians to take over school board so they can prohibit entirely reasonable things like the teaching of the theory of evolution in science classes. If this law stands, and those same people manage to take over the review boards, the result could be something as ridiculous as libraries being jailed for lending out science books to kids. Even if it never got that far, I expect that at the very least alternative religions would be deemed "inappropriate."

So let's not even give them the chance. This is a dumb law that infringes on the rights of parents who don't want to keep their kids insulated within some sort of sanitized bubble of faux-wholesomeness. The very idea of fining and jailing librarians makes it all that much worse, and hopefully will prove extreme enough to derail the entire law.

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