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Missouri librarians say Ashcroft's new state rules on 'obscene' content are 'vague' and confusing

St. Louis County Library

A new statewide rule introduced by Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has librarians concerned for their ability to curate their collections in a way that serves the entire community.

In order to comply with a rule introduced by Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, public libraries in the state now require kids and teenagers as old as 17 to have adult permission in order to obtain a library card.

“What we're hearing from libraries is a lot of confusion,” said Missouri Library Association President-elect Kimberly Moeller. “The rule is vague enough in its language, so many libraries are attempting to be in compliance by saying, ‘OK, well, our new policy says that, if you agree as a parent for your child to have a library card, it means they have access to everything that the library contains.’”

Jason Kuhl, CEO of the St. Charles City-County Library district, said most of the issues the rule addresses have been in place in public libraries for years.

“I'm going to quote another library director here: ‘This is a solution in search of a problem,’” Kuhl said. “[Libraries] have always had a way to challenge items. We have always been staunch advocates for parental involvement with their kids' library access.”

The Library Certification Requirement for the Protection of Minors went into effect on May 31. Per the rule, libraries were required to submit a copy of their written policies to the state librarian by July 31.

Among other stipulations, the rule prohibits libraries from buying materials that are “child pornography,” “pornographic for minors” or “obscene,” as defined by Missouri law.

Several books which have been challenged by parents based on their content are pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Several books which have been challenged by parents based on their content are pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood.

“It's already illegal to provide children with explicit materials,” Moeller said. The use of the term “obscene,” however, leaves this portion of the rule open to interpretation.

“What one person deems to be obscene might be vastly different from what another person does, and what we're seeing is that many people are choosing to define obscene as anything that relates to identity … racial or ethnic identity or LGBTQIA identity,” she said.

In a 2022 news release, Ashcroft said the rule is about protecting children. “Yes, we want to make sure libraries have the resources and materials they need for their constituents, but we also want our children to be ‘children’ a little longer than a pervasive culture may often dictate,” he said.

Regardless of the new rule, Moeller said the mission of Missouri’s public libraries remains the same. “It's just a matter of, how do we comply with this rule in a way that still allows us to provide for a diverse community — without ever having those underrepresented voices taken away?”

The rule comes at a time of increased attention and scrutiny toward public libraries, which Moeller said is coming from a small, vocal minority.

“We have so many community members that are supportive,” she said, while adding that she would like to see more people share that message with state lawmakers.

“[Tell] your representatives, [tell] the people who support you at the state level how you feel about libraries, why they're important to you, why they matter, and that you want to see them continue to be supported.”

Moeller discussed how libraries are responding to the new statewide rule, how children may be affected by it and the broader cultural and political challenges facing libraries on St. Louis on the Air. Listen to the conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or Google Podcast.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production intern. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org
Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Emily Woodbury
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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