Late Tuesday night, the Missouri House of Representatives voted for a state operating budget with a $0 line for public libraries. While the budget still needs to work its way through the Senate and the governor’s office, state funding for public libraries is very much on the chopping block in Missouri.
This comes after Republican House Budget Chairman Cody Smith proposed a $4.5 million cut to public libraries’ state aid last week in the initial House Budget Committee hearing, where Smith cited a lawsuit filed against Missouri by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU-MO) as the reason for the cut.
ACLU-MO filed the suit on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association (MLA) in an effort to overturn a state law passed in 2022 that bans sexually explicit material from schools. Since it was first enacted in August, librarians and other educators have faced misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine for giving students access to books the state has deemed sexually explicit. The Missouri law defined explicit sexual material as images “showing human masturbation, deviate sexual intercourse,” “sexual intercourse, direct physical stimulation of genitals, sadomasochistic abuse,” or showing human genitals. The lawsuit claims that school districts have been pulling books from their shelves.
“The house budget committee’s choice to retaliate against two private, volunteer-led organizations by punishing the patrons of Missouri’s public libraries is abhorrent,” Tom Bastian, deputy director for communications for ACLU-MO said in a statement to Motherboard.
Like in all ACLU cases, the organization is not charging the two Missouri library groups for services. Both library organizations are also run by volunteers – every state has an equivalent of these two organizations that serve public and school libraries. In other words, a politician either lied or didn’t have his facts straight, and now 160 library districts risk losing state aid in June.
“State Aid helps libraries provide relevant collections, literacy based programming, and technology resources to their communities,” Otter Bowman, president of the MLA told Motherboard in a statement. “Our rural libraries rely the most heavily on this funding to serve their communities, and they will be crippled by this drastic budget cut.”
Libraries have become a recurring battleground in the latest culture wars, as conservative groups across the US seek to remove books they consider objectionable. In other states where obscenity bills became laws last year, including Oklahoma and Tennessee, it’s become easier for one adult to challenge books with LGBTQ and diversity representation. Last week, the American Library Association released data showing that in 2022, the amount of book challenges issued nearly doubled, and 32 percent of all book challenges included multiple titles. EveryLibrary Institute has tracked more than two dozen new obscenity bills introduced this year alone, as of March 23, 2023.
“If the members of the committee are concerned about preserving taxpayer funds, they should stop enacting laws they know do not meet constitutional muster, not burden local governments in a misguided effort to silence organizations who object to the legislature’s overreach,” Bastian added.