A Missouri lawmaker says he wants to prevent kids from being exposed to sexually inappropriate materials. Critics say his proposal, aimed at public libraries, amounts to censorship.
The bill, called the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, would cut off state aid to any public library that allows minors to access "age-inappropriate sexual materials." Librarians who don't comply with the law could face up to a $500 fine or one year in jail. It was introduced in the Missouri state House last week.
"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," state Rep. Ben Baker, who sponsored the bill, told CNN affiliate KOAM. "Unfortunately, there are some libraries in the state of Missouri that have done this. And that's a problem."
Baker, a Republican, did not immediately respond to a phone call for comment.
The bill would require each public library to establish a "parental library review board," made up of five members elected by a majority of voters at a meeting in the library's geographical area. Library employees are prohibited from serving on the board.
The board would determine what materials it considers inappropriate and hold hearings to take suggestions from the public. It would have the power to remove materials considered inappropriate from public access by minors.
The bill defines "age-inappropriate sexual material" as any description or representation of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse that appeals to minors, and that "lacks literary value."
Libraries oppose the bill as unnecessary
Library groups in the state and around the country have been sounding the alarm.
PEN America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for free expression, called the bill a "transparent, shameful attempt to legalize book banning."
"This act is clearly aimed at empowering small groups of parents to appoint themselves as censors over their state's public libraries," said James Tager, deputy director of free expression research and policy at PEN America, in a statement. "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."
In a statement, the Missouri Library Association said it opposes the bill as unnecessary and that it would restrict others from accessing certain materials. The association's president, Cynthia Dudenhoffer, said the MLA "will always stand against censorship."
"Public libraries already have procedures in place to assist patrons in protecting their own children while not infringing upon the rights of other patrons or restricting materials," Dudenhoffer said in the statement. "Missouri Library Association will always oppose legislation that infringes on these rights."
Baker pushed back on the assertion that he was censoring public libraries.
"The main thing that I've heard is that I want to ban books or ban content or censor content, and that's not the case," Baker told KOAM. "I just think that there's a line between what is open and available access for our children. Even the bill specifies it wouldn't be taken out of the library, it would just be put in a section that's not for children."