New law could put school staff in jail over what books they provide

Published: Aug. 29, 2022 at 9:20 PM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - Should school librarians face jail time for what they keep on their shelves?

That’s part of what concerns some people about a new Missouri law that went into effect on Sunday.

The law is specific to public and private elementary and secondary schools, but it is outraging some librarians in general.

“If we can’t trust our information professionals — librarians, teachers and other educators in our community — to help guide individuals and families to make those decisions, we really come at a tough point where our profession is being threatened,” said Cindy Hohl, Director of Branch Operations at the Kansas City Public Library.

Hohl is also the treasurer of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

“All of a sudden, librarians are going to be jailed and handcuffed, removed from their library, because of inanimate objects sitting on a shelf. We really think that this is a crime against humanity? That’s a crime against the community? That’s absurd,” said Hohl.

Republican Senator Rick Brattin, whose district includes Barton, Bates, Cass, Henry and Vernon Counties, spearheaded the legislation.

He said he’s surprised it has generated so much controversy. He compared it, in some ways, to FCC penalties on broadcasting “obscenity” and the motion picture ratings such as G, PG, PG-13, R and X.

“This is not re-inventing the wheel and we owe this to our children to protect them and have content that is age appropriate,” he told KCTV5 by phone on Monday.

Violating the new law is a misdemeanor with up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine. It outlaws providing books with images of sexually explicit acts or adult genitals when not in the context of anatomy or sexual education classes.

Brattin said those who could face penalties include not just librarians and educators who make such material available but also school board members whose policies allow such material in school libraries.

KCTV5 spoke with parents outside the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library about the law. Few wanted to share their opinions. Those who did varied from supporting the law to being conflicted.

“It’s not the librarian’s job to teach my kids about this type of material. They should be taught in the home,” said Jordan Cook, who has four children in school.

“They’re putting something in my son’s hands that, you know, I haven’t either explained to them or they don’t know what that world is,” remarked Amber Moore, who has one child in a Kansas City charter school. “Jail, though. I don’t know.”

Brattin said the law lists specific acts to avoid concerns about a vague definition of obscenity. It describes “explicit sexual material” as the following:

Hohl questioned how the state would interpret that.

“How many titles are we talking about here, and who determines what’s appropriate and what’s not?” she said. “When we have educators and librarians who are skilled in literacy and education and development, I would hope that we’d be able to trust those professionals.”

That trust has clearly eroded. Lately, parents across the nation have lobbied to remove books from school libraries. Most have been ones with LGBTQ content or discussions related to race and privilege.

Brattin said, in the next legislative session, he will propose moving beyond just visual depictions to include written descriptions as well.