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Missouri Secretary of State defends controversial library rule as critics warn of ‘slippery slope’

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Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Missouri Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft appearing on Up To Date.

Jay Ashcroft argues his proposed restrictions on "non-age-appropriate materials" in libraries will give parents more power over what their kids consume. Library administrators say the rule would force them to take on a “big brother status,” and threaten equal access to information for all children.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft is pushing back against heavy criticism over a proposed set of regulations that would threaten state funding for libraries over "inappropriate" materials for minors.

The period for public comment on those rules closes Thursday, Dec.15.

“People can say what they want. I thought we'd crafted a rule that would allow local libraries to make sure they did things where they wanted to with visibility and transparency for parents,” Ashcroft said on KCUR’s Up To Date on Wednesday. “Honestly, I'm not the one making a big deal about this. It's the libraries.”

Ashcroft’s proposal would require libraries that receive state funds to adopt six new regulations, which he says are aimed at “protecting minors from non-age-appropriate materials.” Libraries that do not comply couldlose access to state funding.

The proposal would require each library to create a publicly accessible plan for determining the age-appropriateness of all materials, and develop a system for parents to challenge the age designation given to any material, event or display.

Additionally, the rule would restrict the purchase of materials that appeal to the “prurient” sexual interests of any minor, and prevent library employees from allowing anyone under the age of 18 to access "any material in any form not approved by the minor's parents or guardians."

Ashcroft told Up To Date that his proposal would empower Missouri parents with more control over what material their children could access.

“I think our world would be a better place if parents were in charge of their children and didn't tell other parents what they could and couldn't do with their children," Ashcroft said.

Library administrators, however, say the rule would do the opposite — and may end up limiting what materials are available to any kids.

“It’s the foundation of librarianship,” says Kansas City Public Library director of policy analysis Cindy Hohl, who appeared alongside Ashcroft. “Everyone should have equal access to the library.”

Last month, a group of 12 former library directors and administrators signed onto a letter to Ashcroft opposing the rule, saying they were “redundant and unnecessary.”

Hohl says the issues cited by Ashcroft don't really occur in the first place. And many public libraries in Missouri already have a process to challenge materials.

Hohl argues that it shouldn’t be librarians’ job to determine what individual parents want for their kids.

“We don't take on that big brother status now,” Hohl says. “When [a minor] comes in to use the library… their parent is telling them how to use the library. It's really up to the family to decide what is appropriate for them.”

Several Up To Date listeners called, texted and tweeted feedback to Ashcroft’s proposal, saying that the secretary’s reasoning was contradictory.

If approved, Ashcroft says the rule could take effect as early as March 2023.

Comments on the rules are being accepted until Dec. 15 and can be mailed to the Office of the Missouri Secretary of State, PO Box 1767, Jefferson City, MO 65102, or by email to comments@sos.mo.gov. You must include rule number 15 CSR 30-200.015 with your correspondence.

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
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