How Missouri’s libraries are responding to Ashcroft’s ‘protection of minors’ rule

A new rule intended to prevent minors from checking out “obscene” or “pornographic” materials...
A new rule intended to prevent minors from checking out “obscene” or “pornographic” materials from public libraries has gone into effect in the state of Missouri.(Source: Pixabay)
Published: Aug. 3, 2023 at 10:34 AM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - A new rule intended to prevent minors from gaining access to “obscene” or “pornographic” materials in public libraries has gone into effect in the state of Missouri. However, given that public libraries already do not carry obscene or pornographic materials (because it is illegal under Missouri law), the rule may be aimed at more than what is explicitly laid out in its policies.

What does Missouri Rule 15 CSR 30-200.015 say?

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft introduced 15 CSR 30-200.015, or the Library Certification Requirement for the Protection of Minors, in April 2023. The rule officially went into effect on May 31, 2023, with state libraries required to submit a “copy of [their] written policies to the state librarian annually by July 31.″

The full rule can be found on the Missouri state website. A summary of the rule and its policies is as follows:

The State Librarian (Ashcroft) will not continue to send funding to any public library that does not certify in writing that it is adhering to the following:

  • The library has or will write a publicly-accessible policy stating how they determine the age-appropriateness of all library materials.
  • The library will not use any funds to buy or otherwise receive materials in any form that fall under the legal definition of pornography or that would appeal to a minor’s prurient (sexual) interests.
  • The library has or will write a publicly-accessible policy allowing the parents or guardians of minors to know exactly what material is accessible to them. In addition, “no person employed by or acting on behalf of the library shall knowingly grant access to a minor to any material in any form not approved by that minor’s parent or guardian.”
  • Nothing that is age-inappropriate can be displayed in an area of a library designated for minors.
  • Any event or presentation that is taking place at a public library must be advertised with its age-appropriateness clear for the public to see.
  • The library has or will write a publicly-accessible policy allowing the parents or guardians of minors to challenge the age-appropriateness of any library event or material. If any changes are made as a result of a parent/guardian challenge, that change must be published on the library’s website and disclosed to the public.

KCTV5 spoke with three librarians from across the state to discuss how their libraries are adjusting to be in compliance with the rule.

Steve Campbell with the Scenic Regional Public Library (outside St. Louis), Dan Brower with the Cass County Public Library and Crystal Faris with the Kansas City Public Library all have a master’s degree in Library Science or Library and Information Science. In total, they have a combined experience of more than 70 years.

Each librarian said that complying with 15 CSR 30-200.015 came down to a choice for their libraries, either adopting an opt-in or opt-out system.

The opt-in route

One Redditor posted that their local library – the Scenic Regional Library – has chosen to expire the library cards of all minors, effective Aug. 1, 2023. The notification was emailed to the library’s minor patrons and their parents on July 31.

“To renew a minor’s library card,” the notification says, “a parent (or legal guardian) must accompany their minor to a Scenic Regional Library branch or the Washington Public Library and sign the new card’s consent language. The new consent language acknowledges that the parent (or legal guardian) understands that the library cannot control or monitor a minor’s access to the library’s collections, including the Internet.”

In other words, parents must “opt-in” to a renewed library card with the understanding that “at a public library, it is the responsibility of the parent (or legal guardian) to determine what their minor views, checks out, or accesses at the library.”

If a parent or legal guardian “is uncomfortable” or does not agree to be the sole monitor of what their child accesses while in the library, they “are advised to not renew their minor’s library card.”

The Cass County Public Library is following this policy, as well. Dan Brower, the library’s director, said that because Cass County does not have separate library cards for minors and adults, expiring the cards of all minors was necessary to ensure that it was explicitly clear to all parents that the library cannot control what their children view.

To be clear, 15 CSR 30-200.015 does not require that all public libraries in Missouri follow this same course of action. The rule only requires the libraries to submit written verification to the Secretary of State, Jay Ashcroft, that they are adopting and adhering to all policies within the rule. Many of those policies, such as, “no funds received shall be used to purchase or acquire material that constitutes ‘child pornography...’” were already in place.

Scenic Regional Library Director Steven W. Campbell said that, after speaking with legal counsel, it was determined that there were “not a lot of other good options” aside from the opt-in choice. The penalty for breaking the rule could be the loss of state funding, so it was important to Campbell that Scenic Regional stay well within bounds.

There is no leeway in the opt-in rule either – it is all in or all out. If parents do not take full responsibility for monitoring what their children view, then the library cannot permit those children to have library cards. “Unlike when minors are at school,” Scenic Regional explains, “library staff does not supervise minors.”

Parents and guardians have nothing to worry about because renewing their child’s library card has not been made any more difficult than before. Parents have always had to sign for minors’ library cards to ensure financial responsibility for what they check out. Now, a parent’s signature ensures they are willing to take on full censorial responsibility for what their children consume, too.

Ashcroft has stated that he sees the opt-in policy of “[revoking] kids’ library cards rather than comply[ing]” as “child banning.” The opt-in policy, however, merely guarantees that libraries are compliant with 15 CSR 30-200.015. Ashcroft says he wants libraries to continue “engaging parents as partners in education” and allowing parents to opt their children into library usage may be one way to accomplish that.

The opt-out route

Crystal Faris with the Kansas City Public Library says it is the only major public library in the state implementing an “opt-out” system.

The opt-out says that parents can choose to have their minor’s library cards deactivated – but not canceled – if they are uncomfortable with the idea of their child having full access to the library’s materials. Once the minor turns 18, their card will be reactivated.

Just like with the opt-in rule, there is no leeway in the opt-out rule. Parents must agree that the library cannot control what their children view or they will not be able to view anything at all. This protects the library from accidentally granting “access to a minor to any material in any form not approved by that minor’s parent or guardian.”

How can a library not control what children view?

There are several obstacles preventing library staff from having full control over what minors view, whether they are in the library or using its online resources.

When children are physically present in a library, library staff cannot monitor them any more than a grocery store clerk could. Both librarians and clerks can certainly ask children to stop if they are damaging library or grocery store property or being a public nuisance, but neither can take full responsibility for monitoring them.

Further, although every library has defined children’s sections, a librarian can no more bar a child from walking into an adult section than a grocery store clerk could bar a child from walking into the sexual health aisle. It is not within a grocery store clerk or librarian’s legal obligation or jurisdiction to do so. Parents must be present to monitor what their children see and do in all realms – grocery stores and libraries included.

The availability of certain technologies and online library resources only makes it more impossible for staff to have full control over minors. As Scenic Regional explained in its notice to parents, “With self-check systems, minors can check out items on their own without ever interacting with library staff. With our online resources, minors can access digital materials (e-books, e-audiobooks, etc.) from home or a mobile device with their library card.”

“While the library’s Internet access utilizes content filtering software to block pornography and other obscene content, the library cannot control or monitor other content an individual minor may access on the Internet of which their parent (or legal guardian) may disapprove.”

Scenic Regional continues to explain that no amount of technology could “prevent a minor from reading certain materials in the library.

Future alternatives to opt-in or opt-out

An eventual alternative to the opt-in or opt-out systems may be to have a mass database with every minor’s parental preferences stored in it. With current technology, however, “libraries’ computer systems are not sophisticated enough to automatically block a list of titles a parent (or legal guardian) does not want their minor to check out,” Scenic Regional stated.

In addition to the lack of technology, there is no officially recognized “rating system” for books that designates their age-appropriateness either. This means that, unlike with movies where a parent could disallow their child from watching anything PG-13 and above, a parent would have to read every single book to determine whether they find it age-appropriate and block it out of their child’s library access if it isn’t. It seems absurd, but Campbell says that an age-appropriateness rating system of that kind would have to come from publishers and, at this point, it’s not.

Both Campbell and Faris agree that individual libraries could not take on the task of creating a rating system. They do not have the staffing or resources necessary to sort through and rate every book. Plus, there is no guarantee that every parent would agree with the ratings, bringing the problem back to square one.

Faris says that the Kansas City Public Library always has and always will invite parents to join their children in the library and monitor them hands-on. In addition, hers and all other public libraries in Missouri have publicly-accessible forms where patrons can contest whether a certain book should be in the children’s section. In her 18 years at KCPL, Faris has only had three of those requests come through.

What does this rule mean?

As it stands, the rule does not mean much for public libraries aside from the time that has been taken to implement the opt-in or opt-out systems. Going forward, the Missouri legislature has the potential to codify 15 CSR 30-200.015 into law via HB 1159. If passed, that would make it a felony to break the rule-turned-law.

On a surface level, this is not a bad thing. Charging an adult with a felony if they provided a minor with pornography makes sense; there is no argument against this. However, it is already against the law to do that and, since no public libraries have pornography or obscenities in them to begin with, taking the potential law at face value makes it a moot point.

Why make it a felony for grandparents to give their grandchildren alcohol if it is already illegal for an adult to give a minor alcohol? The specificity of grandparent to grandchild – or librarian to minor – is not necessary if the core task of giving a child something they shouldn’t have has already been outlawed.

Ashcroft’s rule implies that, despite pornography being illegal in public libraries, there is still something lingering on library shelves that parents should be afraid of.

All three librarians disagree with the idea that their children’s sections have any harmful content in them. They each expressed the need for intellectual freedom, especially for children. Naturally, intellectual freedom is a spectrum, so arguing for children to have full access to all information is just as extreme as arguing for children to have no access to any information.

Instead, the librarians urge parents to join their children in the libraries and be a part of their learning experience.

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