Missouri librarian calls on libraries ‘to make a stand’ against censorship
Missouri’s public libraries got some good news this week. Yet, even as a Senate committee moved to restore all $4.5 million in funding for the state’s 160 local public libraries, librarians like Joe Kohlburn, of the Missouri Library Association, say that many of his colleagues remain fearful.
“I would say it’s tentative relief,” Kohlburn said Friday, reacting to the news of the budget’s restoration. “Unfortunately, I think the Missouri government is sending librarians a very specific message.”
That message has come in the form of new restrictions and criminal penalties for public libraries. In August, a new state law went into effect that outlaws school libraries offering books with sexually explicit images. Librarians and other school officials can face up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine for violating the policy.
In response, librarians and free speech activists argued the law’s definition of sexually explicit content is unconstitutionally vague and will put librarians at risk for legal responsibilities. In February, the ACLU of Missouri sued to overturn the law on behalf of two library organizations, including the Missouri Library Association.
That lawsuit triggered a backlash. Two weeks after the suit was announced, House Budget Committee Chairman Cody Smith, R-Carthage, cut all $4.5 million in state funding that public libraries were slated to get next fiscal year. Smith accused the state’s libraries of using public funds to support the ACLU lawsuit.
That’s not true, Kohlburn told St. Louis on the Air, and explained that the ACLU took on the lawsuit pro bono. "There is no public funding going into this lawsuit at all," he said.
Further, Kohlburn argues that the restrictions on “sexually explicit” material appear to be focused on a narrow set of topics and authors: “Whenever someone proposes that books be removed from the library on the grounds that they're obscene, what they're typically talking about is that they depict some experience of an LGBT person.”
Meanwhile, the drama over the state’s library funding isn’t over. Although the Senate committee has returned the funding to its proposed budget, the budget could still be adjusted before the end of the legislative session.
Between the new state law, and efforts to end funding for libraries, the wave of efforts from Missouri’s Republican-controlled legislature to restrict public libraries has thrown the future of these institutions into doubt, noted Kohlburn. In addition to working as an academic librarian at Jefferson College, Kohlburn teaches future librarians studying at the University of Missouri.
He said many librarians, both current and in training, are afraid they may face criminal charges or accusations that they are sexually “grooming” children. He also believes that more librarians need to oppose the political efforts seeking to change how libraries function.
“It places an undue emotional burden on librarians. On top of having to do their job … they have to worry about going to jail for a year,” he said. “We are forced into this position by some folks in Jefferson City, trying to use libraries is a political football. There may be consequences, but I think librarians have to make this stand.”
To hear more from librarian Joe Kohlburn, including an update about a separate library rule set to go into effect May 30 that threatens further budget cuts to public libraries, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.