A Politician Wants to Censor Books and Throw Librarians in Jail. It’s a...

column | Libraries

A Politician Wants to Censor Books and Throw Librarians in Jail. It’s a Slippery Slope.

By Kimberly Rues (Columnist)     Feb 11, 2020

A Politician Wants to Censor Books and Throw Librarians in Jail. It’s a Slippery Slope.

One of the most important lessons I teach kids as a school librarian is the idea of the “Rights and Responsibilities of a Reader,” a set of guidelines for readers of all ages that articulates key ideas about reader behavior. For example, one of the rights of a reader is that you can read the last chapter first if you want (I don’t get those people, but I absolutely respect their right to have their dessert first!).

A key responsibility: If something bothers you, you don’t have to read it. When teaching the lesson, I remind kids that the rules are different in their house compared with their friends’ homes. They nod in agreement, already understanding that some video games are tolerated differently, movie selections are tempered by family values and even what radio stations play in the car varies depending on who’s present.

I also remind them that there is no way for me to know all the rules at their house, but they know, and they should select library books that fit with what they’re comfortable with. One family is perfectly happy to let their second grader dig into the deliciously scary Goosebumps series, where another student’s family would really rather they didn’t because they are prone to anxiety and nightmares.

Earlier this year, in my home state of Missouri, a conservative Republican state legislator, Ben Baker, created quite a stir in library circles when he introduced the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, or House Bill 2044. The bill calls for the creation of elected five-member panels who would provide oversight on books held in public library collections to ensure that the titles offered are appropriate for children (i.e., not sexually explicit). The bill also calls for community input, meaning the public would be called upon to suggest titles that should be excluded from public library collections accessible by children.

To top it off library staff who “willfully” refuse to comply could be fined up to $500 or jailed for up to a year. (And, as if that’s not enough, libraries could lose their funding).

What books require oversight according to HB2044?

“Age-inappropriate sexual material", any description or representation, in any form, of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse, that: (a) Taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest of minors; (b) Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to what is appropriate material for minors; and (c) Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors;

Of course, library advocates have voiced their concerns with this proposed legislation. From the American Library Association Office of Information Freedom: “Missouri House Bill 2044 clearly proposes policies and procedures that threaten library users’ freedom to read and violate our deeply held commitment to families’ and individuals’ intellectual freedom, as expressed in ALA’s Library Bill of Rights,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the OIF director and the executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation in a statement.

“Public libraries already have procedures in place that assist parents in selecting materials that fit their family’s information needs, while not censoring materials or infringing upon the rights of other families or patrons to choose the books they want and need.”

In an interview, Baker insisted that this legislation is not at all intended to censor or ban books, and that “all content would still be available for a parent or guardian to provide to their children.”

Granted, a school library will have nowhere near the broad range of potentially offensive topics (sexually-focused or otherwise), but in the words of the librarian and editor Jo Godwin, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.”

A five-member panel (while duly elected) cannot possibly represent every opinion, every set of values, every type of person living in a community, and it smacks of micro-management to me. The legislation’s language of “prevailing standards in the adult community” seems vague and impossible to define (very likely deliberately—giving those with the power the right to establish (and shift) those standards as they go along).

Recently, I finished reading a fantastic YA title, “Not If I Save You First” by Ally Carter, in which the main character, a strong sassy girl named Maddie, who is known best to those who love her as Mad Dog, is bold enough (gasp!) to kiss the boy character (Logan, the President’s son) on more than one occasion. (Warning: minor plot twist spoiler in the next sentence!) In one of those kisses she passes a handcuff key to Logan. The story isn’t graphic at all about how she manages it, but anyone with background knowledge of kissing would likely infer that a tongue had to be involved. Would that be enough for the adults adhering to the “prevailing standards in the adult community” to suggest that a kid would need parental permission to check out this fantastic adventure story?

Another example from the way-back machine: In “Do You Know the Monkey Man?” by Dori Halstead Butler, the main character has to try on a bridesmaid’s dress to have it fitted. As would be true for most middle-grade girls, she’s decidedly uncomfortable to be seen in her underwear. Not overtly sexual, of course, but the discomfort comes from a need for privacy, and on a slippery slope somewhere it is possible for the “prevailing standards in the adult community” to determine that this one too should be locked behind the gate of parental purity.

Or in “The Giver'' by Lois Lowry, the children begin taking pills at puberty to ward off feelings.

Or in “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson two penguin dads raise a chick.

Or in “Julian is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love, a boy dresses up like a mermaid.

A slippery slope indeed.

When it comes to kids choosing books in a public library, Most kids who browse library shelves are doing so with their parents in tow. Those same parents probably should be monitoring their kids’ internet usage, video game choices and movie night picks. Parenting is about doing what we can to guide our children with our own values in focus.

I’ll never be one to say that my values are the only ones that are right and that my entire community must abide by them. What worries me is that those elected to the oversight panel may not be quite so open minded.

And I get it. Kids grow up and have their own driver’s licenses and can go to the library solo. By that point, I hope that they know our values and make choices that fit. Because at some point, they’re going to be out in the big bad world without us to monitor them, and I sure hope they make choices that align with our values—love, acceptance and kindness.

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