Public library employees in Missouri could face a fine or jail time for providing “age-inappropriate sexual material” under a bill proposed by a state lawmaker.
The bill, known as the “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act,” has drawn criticism by library and freedom-of-speech groups since it was introduced last month by State Representative Ben Baker, a Republican.
The bill proposes that libraries create a parental review panel that would evaluate whether content provided by the library is “age-inappropriate sexual material.” The panels would be made up of five residents who are not library employees.
Under the bill, libraries could lose state funding for failing to comply and a library employee who “willfully neglects or refuses to perform any duty” of the legislation could face a misdemeanor charge and, if convicted, be fined up to $500 and sentenced up to a year in jail.
In a Facebook post, Mr. Baker said the bill was aimed at events like the “‘Drag Queen Story Hours’ that have been happening at libraries across our country and in several libraries in our own state.” Mr. Baker was not immediately available for comment on Monday.
In recent years, drag performers have entertained children by reading books at libraries and community centers. The events have faced some backlash: In June, State Representative Larry Householder of Ohio condemned drag queen story time in a letter to the Ohio Library Council. “I can also assure you the taxpayers aren’t interested in seeing their hard-earned dollars being used to teach teenage boys how to become drag queens,” he wrote.
The draft of the Missouri bill does not specifically address drag queen events. Mr. Baker said on Facebook that the bill is “also aimed at agenda-driven literary content designed to encourage excessive interest in sexual matters.” He did not cite specific examples in his post.
He noted that if the parental board found content, such as books, media or events sponsored by the library, to not be age appropriate for minors, “then it would be removed from access by minors” but not removed from the library.
“For instance, instead of being in the children’s section it would be placed in the adult section,” he wrote.
Mr. Baker has found support for the bill.
“Baker will only be successful if we all rally behind him and lend our voices — and our votes — to preserving family values,” the author and speaker Elizabeth Johnston wrote on her website Activist Mommy. The post included a link to a petition to support the legislation with the hashtag #IStandWithRepresentativeBaker.
But library and freedom-of-speech groups have voiced concerns about the proposal.
“This is the first time we have ever seen a bill that proposes a body elected from a community meeting that would be able to override the decisions of an appointed library board or duly elected library board,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said on Sunday.
“We were, of course, dismayed and unhappy to see a bill that would essentially put librarians in jail for sharing materials that are constitutionally protected and age appropriate except in the eyes of five people,” she added.
She noted that public libraries already have protocols 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.”
Cynthia Dudenhoffer, president of the Missouri Library Association, said in a statement that the group would “always stand against censorship and for the freedom to read.”
“Public libraries exist to provide equitable access to information to all of its users, as it is key to having an informed populace,” she said.
In a statement, PEN America, a nonprofit group that promotes freedom of speech, called the bill “a transparent attempt to legalize book banning.”
James Tager, deputy director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America, said that books with sexual themes and positive L.G.B.T. characters would be “on the chopping block if this bill is passed.”
“It was so transparently aimed at imposing state-mandated censorship over public libraries in an entire state,” he said.
Mr. Baker’s bill has not been assigned to a committee.