Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft last week announced a new proposed rule he says will protect minors in the state’s libraries. But librarians and freedom to read advocates fear the unwieldy new rule is another example of the ongoing, nationwide political attack on the freedom to read being waged under the guise of parental rights.

Among its provisions, the proposed rule would require the Missouri State Library (which falls under the purview of the Secretary of State) to “certify” the collection development policies of all public libraries in the state as a condition of receiving state funds, although there is no mention of what certification would involve.

Furthermore, the rule prohibits state funds from buying any materials deemed to "appeal to the prurient interests of any minor" and would bar “age-inappropriate materials in any form” from being displayed in areas “predominantly” serving minors.

The rule also appears to require librarians to somehow enforce a parent or guardian’s decision about what their minor child (which is defined as under the age of 18) can access or check out from the library. The rule also requires an “age-appropriate designation" for library events and programs, and mandates the adoption of a challenge policy in which “any person” can dispute the library’s age-appropriate designation on any “presentation, event, material, or display” in a library.

“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 press release last week. “Yes, we want to make sure libraries have the resources and materials they need for their constituents, and we also want our children to be ‘children’ a little longer than a pervasive culture many often dictate.”

Ashcroft further defended the rule to local CBS affiliate 13KRCG this week, insisting that the rule does not “ban” books, but requires that “age-inappropriate” material be kept from children. “It can be as simple as putting it on a higher shelf,” Ashcroft told the station.

But it’s not so simple, librarians and library advocates insist. Inside and outside the state, librarians are expressing concern over the vaguely written rule. Claudia Young, director of the Missouri River Regional Library system and current president of the Missouri Library Association, told 13KRCG that the proposal came without warning, and has led to questions and confusion among the state's librarians. Perhaps the most pressing question, Young noted: “Who really decides what is appropriate?”

St. Charles City-County Library CEO Jason Kuhl told the local NBC affiliate KSDK that he has concerns what about the bill is designed to achieve.

“We have a review committee read every one of those challenged items and make a determination. I have not seen a sort of a large problem out there with miscategorized books in public libraries. And so I think from my end, I question what problem this is addressing,” Kuhl told KSDK. "I think this could be the beginning of a slippery slope. No matter how sort of innocuous these initial sort of steps could look it could set precedents for more and more restrictive policies in the future.”

The new rule in Missouri comes in the midst of what freedom to read advocates say is a well coordinated, politically motivated surge of book challenges and educational gag orders nationwide, primarily targeting books featuring protagonists of color, issues of race, or LGBTQ characters. It also comes just weeks after a state judge in Virginia threw out a high-profile lawsuit that had sought to declare two books obscene for minors and ban them from libraries and bookstores under an obscure state law.

We need to reengage with the idea that when a book is relevant to an age group or topic, any individual parent may still feel that book is inappropriate for their own child, but that decision should not negate or eliminate access for every other family in the community.

At press time, the Missouri State Library had yet to comment on the proposed rule. But other state librarians were quick to echo Kuhl's point: virtually every library in the country already has a publicly available collection development policy in place as well as well-established processes overseen by local boards for challenging materials.

Jeremy Johannesen, executive director of COSLA (Chief Officers of State Library Agencies), a national organization representing state library leaders, told PW the proposed rule in Missouri is “a solution in search of a problem.”

"Libraries are and will continue to be trusted, safe places for children and families to learn and explore,” Johannesen said. "And yet by suggesting the need for these rules, the Secretary suggests, without evidence, that libraries are not safe and that librarians and library boards are not doing their jobs. Instead of improving library collections and services to Missouri’s children, these proposed rules will empower and embolden [a minority in the community] to deluge libraries with frivolous book challenges and will needlessly undermine the trust in Missouri’s dedicated librarians.”

EveryLibrary executive director John Chrastka, who has been tracking the sharp rise in book challenges and educational gag orders, called the proposed new rule a “First Amendment minefield,” and echoed Young’s concern about who ultimately decides what is appropriate or inappropriate.

“This rule is troubling in its scope,” Chrastka told PW. “We need to reengage with the idea that when a book is relevant to an age group or topic, any individual parent may still feel that book is inappropriate for their own child, but that decision should not negate or eliminate access for every other family in the community."

This is not Missouri's first attempt to regulate materials available in the state's public libraries under the guise of parental rights. In 2020, House Bill 2044, the Parental Oversight Of Public Libraries Act proposed to set up "parental oversight boards" to determine which materials were appropriate for minors in libraries, and proposed fines and jail times for librarians who did not comply. Amid criticism from librarians in the state and freedom to read advocates nationwide, the bill failed to advance.

It is unclear at this point whether the new proposed rule can achieve administratively what House Bill 2044 failed to achieve through the legislative process. The rule is currently scheduled to be published in the Missouri Register on November 15, with a 30-day comment period to follow. Comments can be mailed to the Office of the Missouri Secretary of State, P.O. Box 1767, Jefferson City, MO 65102, or submitted by email to comments@sos.mo.gov.