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Missouri ACLU, librarians sue over law that led to schools banning hundreds of books

Missouri librarians are suing over a new law banning sexually explicit materials from schools, leading districts to remove hundreds of books, including classic novels, human anatomy textbooks and Holocaust history books, according to a lawsuit filed at the Jackson County Courthouse.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri is subpoenaing Jackson County Attorney Jean Peters Baker, in her role and as a representative of all county prosecutors statewide, on behalf of the Missouri Library Association and the Missouri Association of School Librarians. The lawsuit argues that the law is unconstitutional, amounting to government censorship and the suppression of students’ First Amendment rights.

The law, which passed last year as part of a larger bill addressing the rights of survivors of sexual assault, threatens librarians or other school employees who violate it with a misdemeanor, facing up to a year in prison. prison or a $2,000 fine.

“The law presents a specific danger to school librarians, but it also endangers the jobs and livelihoods of public and academic librarians who work with K-12 schools in various capacities,” said Joe Kohlburn with the Missouri Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee, in a press release. “…Librarians have been undermined politically in this state for long enough, and fear of prosecution is a constant problem in keeping skilled professionals in Missouri, as well as bringing new people into the profession.”

Michael Mansur, a spokesman for the Jackson County attorney, said the office has not yet seen the lawsuit, so he could not comment on Thursday.

After the law took effect in late August, districts across the state pulled hundreds of titles from school libraries, many of which are written or feature characters who are people of color or identify as LGBTQ.

The legislation specifically prohibits images in school materials that could be considered sexually explicit, such as depictions of genitalia or sexual acts. As a result, most of the banned books are graphic novels. The law provides for some exceptions, such as for works of art or scientific textbooks.

Proponents of the legislation argued it would protect children from inappropriate content.

“In schools across the country, we’ve seen this disgusting and inappropriate content make its way into our classrooms,” State Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said in a statement after the legislation passed last session. “Instead of acknowledging this as the threat it is, some schools are actually fighting parents to protect this filth. The last place our children should see pornography is in our schools.”

In the Kansas City area, the Independence School District has removed a dozen graphic novels from library shelves, including a comic book version of Kurt Vonnegut’s American classic “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the iconic graphic novel “Watchmen.” by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, “Blankets” by Craig Thompson and “Home After Dark” by David Small, according to recordings previously obtained by The Star.

The district also banned Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.” Both graphic novels feature LGBTQ themes and have been targeted by conservative groups.

In the North Kansas City borough, nine books were removed, including the graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’s bestseller “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Juno Dawson’s “This Book Is Gay,” and the queer comic anthology “Be Gay, Do Comics”.

In the St. Louis region, the Kirkwood district has banned the comic book version of “1984,” George Orwell’s novel about a society under dystopian government surveillance and control, according to a list compiled by PEN America of removed books in response to the law.

The Wentzville School District, according to the list, removed several books related to the history of the Holocaust, including John Allen’s “Hitler’s Final Solution,” as well as “Holocaust Camps and Killing Centers,” “Holocaust Rescue and Liberation,” and ” Resistance to the Holocaust”, all written by Craig E Blohm.

As of November, about 300 titles had been banned from school libraries across the state, the lawsuit says.

Missouri and federal law already prohibit and criminalize the provision of obscene and pornographic material to minors, the ACLU says in its lawsuit. Districts and librarians follow school board-approved policies regarding criteria for selecting age-appropriate books, including standards that prohibit obscene materials.

“Missouri school librarians serve as trained and certified experts when curating developmentally appropriate collections for our students,” said Melissa Corey, president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, in the release. “This statute has created a chilling effect on the development of school library collections, resulting in fewer representative books within our collections, due to fears of prosecution.”

The lawsuit says school librarians across the state have begun censoring their collections for fear of criminal prosecution and are now often reluctant to add new books or materials that reflect diversity.

Many school librarians, the lawsuit states, “have been asked to scan entire collections of titles for visuals that could be considered ‘sexually explicit material’ and ordered to remove certain titles, but have not received any additional guidance.” on the application of (the law) and how it applies to any of the titles removed.

The ACLU argues that the law is unconstitutionally vague and broad, calling for discriminatory and arbitrary enforcement.

The suit states that it “could prosecute a parent who is a school employee for providing books or other materials to their children or their friends who are students even if it is done in the privacy of their own home because the law does not restrict about when and where it applies”.

The ACLU is asking the court to find the law unconstitutional and make it unenforceable, or issue a ruling clarifying how and when the law applies to eliminate concern of arbitrary application.

Over the past two years, GOP lawmakers, political action committees, and conservative parenting groups in metro Kansas City and across the country have spearheaded challenges to school library books, mostly featuring racially diverse or LGBTQ characters .

Librarians have expressed concern about the harassment, with some questioning whether to continue working.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft has proposed legislation that would threaten state funding of public libraries for making “age-inappropriate materials” available to minors. Ashcroft’s office has received 20,000 public comments on the proposal, including widespread criticism from librarians and free speech advocates who say it is an attack on intellectual freedom.

In December, the ACLU of Missouri sued the Independence School District over its book removal policy, following a school board vote to ban a book from elementary school libraries because it has a non-binary character . The ongoing lawsuit seeks to end the school district’s policy of automatically removing library materials upon receipt of a challenge, before any reviews have taken place.

Meanwhile, Lee’s Summit School District received nearly 200 challenges for 90 book titles this year. The flood of complaints, filed by just six people, led the district to form 28 committees to evaluate the disputed books and make recommendations on whether to retain or remove them, said district spokeswoman Katy Bergen.

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