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ACLU sues Missouri over book ban law that pushed school libraries to remove hundreds of titles

Brian Munoz
/
STLPR

A new Missouri law made it a crime to provide minors with sexually explicit visual material, leading librarians across the state to remove anything from their collections that they thought could be considered criminal.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri is challenging a new state law that bans sexually explicit material from schools and has resulted in districts pulling hundreds of books from their shelves.

The suit, filed on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association, asks the circuit court in Kansas City to find the law unconstitutional. The ACLU filed the lawsuit against Jean Peters Baker in her capacity as the Jackson County Prosecutor and on behalf of all county prosecutors in Missouri.

The law, which went into effect in late August, made it a crime to provide minors with sexually explicit visual material. Librarians or other school officials could face up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine for violating the policy.

As the law went into effect, many librarians across the state went through their collections removing anything they thought could be considered criminal.

Under the law, the ACLU argues that school staff are forced to choose between students' First Amendment rights and prosecution.

“The law presents specific peril for school librarians, but also endangers the work and livelihoods of public and academic librarians who work with K-12 schools in various capacities,” Joe Kohlburn of the Missouri Library Association said in a statement. “Librarians have been undermined politically in this state for long enough, and the fear of prosecution is an ongoing issue for keeping qualified professionals in Missouri, as well as bringing new people into the profession."

In its lawsuit, the ACLU argues that the law violates educators’ due process rights because it uses vague language that invites government overreach and does not differentiate school employees' official capacity from their personal capacity — leaving them open to even more legal repercussions.

The law makes it illegal to provide students with visual depictions of things considered sexually explicit, including genitals and sex acts. There are exceptions to the law for works of art or materials used in science courses.

Federal and state law already prohibits providing obscene and pornographic materials to minors, according to the lawsuit. School districts in Missouri, it said, also have board-approved processes to choose appropriate library materials.

"Our school librarians are professionally trained to review all books that are placed on our shelves, and go along with the selection criteria that our school boards approved, ultimately, to curate a developmentally appropriate collection for each grade level that we work with," said Melissa Corey, president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians. "One of our major concerns is also not only looking at what's currently in our collection, but the potential for a chilling effect on what we would buy in the future."

The lawsuit states that the law prompted schools across Missouri to order hundreds of books removed from their shelves. Many of those books were written by or about minority or LGBTQ individuals, but also include many graphic novels, human anatomy books and Holocaust history books. The law has exceptions for art, anthropology and health, but librarians said they didn’t know where to draw the line.

In the St. Louis region, more than half of the books St. Louis Public Radio found were immediately removed were written by or about LGBTQ people or people of color. Corey said that makes it hard to meet students’ needs.

“Ultimately, school librarians want to develop representative collections,” Corey said. “So we want to make sure that we're reflecting our students' experiences within the texts that we do have on our school library shelves.”

The ACLU sued the Independence School District in December after its school board banned a book that included a non-binary character. The lawsuit over the district’s policy to automatically remove a book from its shelves once it’s been challenged is pending.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
Kate Grumke reports on the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media. Email Kate at kgrumke@stlpr.org.
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