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Missouri GOP proposes a frighteningly efficient way to ban books

Targeting particular library books for removal was bad enough. Now some Republican lawmakers in Missouri have proposed withholding state money from libraries.
Close up of books on desk in library.

jovan_epn / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Republicans who control the Missouri House have passed a budget that doesn’t give its public libraries a single cent of state money. The lawmakers were angered that the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association had the temerity to challenge a law Missouri lawmakers passed last year removing certain material deemed too sexually explicit from school libraries.

By definition, a law requiring certain books to be removed from shelves is a book ban.

According to a March 24 report from The Kansas City Star, Missouri state Rep. Cody Smith said of those groups, “They are seeking to overturn that law that was unanimously supported by the House. I don’t think we should subsidize that.” Nevermind the fact that the two library associations say the ACLU of Missouri has been representing them pro bono.

In defending a budget that denies public libraries state funding and last year’s law, Republican state Rep. Dirk Deaton tried to put a fig leaf on what is a naked embrace of censorship: “It’s been said this is a book ban. This is not that. It is protecting innocent children.”

By definition, a law requiring certain books to be removed from shelves is a book ban.

The conservative determination to ban books with content conservatives don’t like has been awful enough to observe. As a recent report from the news site Coda points out, librarians in Missouri are terrified that Senate Bill 775, a 2022 law targeting “explicit sexual material” in libraries could lead to their being charged with distributing pornography to children simply for doing their jobs.

But Republicans voting to completely withdraw state support from public libraries? Threatening to imprison librarians for doing what librarians do? Last year’s law and this year’s budget proposal represent an escalation in the party’s authoritarian commitment to punish dissent and keep the public ignorant.

There’s a chance that this particular battle against books won’t succeed. Missouri state Sen. Lincoln Hough, the Republican chair of Missouri’s Senate Appropriations Committee, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Tuesday, “There is no way that money is not going back into the budget.” Lets hope Hough's prediction is right.

The problem, though, is that Missouri Republicans aren’t the only ones mounting up against libraries. Late last month, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., tweeted: “Over time, American communities will build beautiful, church owned public-access libraries. I’m going to help these churches get funding. We will change the whole public library paradigm. The libraries regular Americans recall are gone. They’ve become liberal grooming centers.”

In the universe of lawmakers, ignorance is catching. Expect, then, to see the defunding of libraries or the argument that their function be turned over to churches continue to spread among Republicans like a virus. Because among Republicans, the idea that public money could be used to make available material that conservative parents would rather their children not see has all of a sudden become anathema.

It’s important that people decrying the rising Republican animosity toward books not defend books as innocuous things.

Recently, on the inside door of a restroom in a small-town public library in Red State, U.S.A., I saw a sign labeled “Sensitive Subjects,” presumably posted by library staff. Struck by the concern it conveyed and by the necessity of its discreet placement, I snapped a photo of it. “We are here to help but we know some things are hard to ask about,” the sign read. “Here is a list of subjects and where you can find them. They can be found in the Young Adult section or the Adult section.”

Abortion was the first topic on that library’s list. The last topic was suicide. Other topics included LGBTQ issues and mental illness; pregnancy, drug addiction and sexually transmitted diseases; divorce, depression, domestic violence and rape and sexual assault. I’m guessing that sign has helped someone navigating an urgent, potentially life-changing situation, find one or more books with needed information. Or — because experiencing a thing is not a prerequisite for reading about a thing — maybe those books simply helped a person learn about a topic that interested them. It’s a fitting public expenditure, either way.

It’s important that people decrying the rising Republican animosity toward books not defend books as innocuous things. That would be dishonest. Books can be dangerous. Not dangerous in the same way that guns, knives or explosive chemicals can be dangerous, but dangerous in the sense that they can (and so often do) introduce their readers to ideas that challenge old ways of thinking and being. That’s why unfettered access to books can be so scary to those who position themselves as the gatekeepers of what is acceptable to do or think.

In “Areopagitica,” John Milton’s 1644 pamphlet opposing England’s law establishing a licensing and approval process for books, the poet argues: “[A]s good almost kill a man as kill a good book.” When I was introduced to that essay, I believed Milton to be arguing against the kind of repressive regime that my era of Americans would never see. But here we are in 2023, and Republicans in the Show Me State are among those showing us the kind of authoritarian dystopia that's in our future if we don’t take a stand for the freedom of people to read whatever they want to read right now.