Drag Queen Story Hours the Target of MO Library Bill

Missouri Seal & Books

Last week CBLDF reported on House Bill 2044 in Missouri which threatens fines, jail, & loss of funding for libraries that give “age-inappropriate” books to kids. We speculated possible reasons that Representative Ben Baker came up with the bill, but he recently admitted that it is Drag Queen Story Hours that drew his attention to attack libraries. The bill also mandates parental oversight committees, who would not only decide what is and isn’t age-appropriate, but their decision wouldn’t be able to be appealed. Any library that didn’t follow these edicts if it passed would lose state funding. All in a bid to control events where other parents take their kids.

According to NBC News Baker said,

“They’ve had these drag queen story hours, and that’s something that I take objection to and I think a lot of parents do. That’s where in a public space, our kids could be exposed to something that’s age-inappropriate. That’s what I’m trying to tackle.”

Baker’s defense came in response to a lot of negative publicity over the obvious implications of the bill banning books from libraries. But it isn’t much of a defense. NBCNews goes on to note,

Baker’s constituency of Neosho has never hosted a drag queen event at its public libraries, but their popularity in large cities like St. Louis, where an event attracted 500 people in September, has sparked indignation from conservatives across the state.

Identity censorship against programming is increasing. This past summer, we witnessed overtly prejudiced behavior resulting in a Texas town canceling a library graphic novel club event with best-selling trans comics creator, Lilah Sturges. Even with CBLDF and a Texas councilwoman standing up and calling for justice and fair practices, the town wouldn’t back down or return control to the librarians themselves.  Ben Baker’s defense that this is aimed at banning books, isn’t a defense at all. Banning events, displays, programs, classes – it all erodes the First Amendment.

The Bill

At first, it appears like boilerplate obscenity laws, until the differences start to sink in(all emphasis is mine).

2. As used in this section, the following terms mean:
(1) “Age-inappropriate sexual material”, any description or representation, in any form, of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse, that:
(a) Taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest of minors;
(b) Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to what is appropriate material for minors; and
(c) Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors;

By adding the caveat of “for minors” to the already vague obscenity law language, it creates an even more difficult to define target. Now we are deciding what excites or what lacks merit for a faceless group of children. Something like Anna Karinina could be deemed as having no merit “for minors” as its text is mature and difficult to read, but that doesn’t mean a bright teenager wouldn’t benefit from reading it. As anyone knows who has ever met more than one child, they are all different. This is why each parent is given the responsibility to decide for their own children, instead of putting five adults together to get to pick for everyone’s kids.

(a) The board shall determine whether any sexual material provided to the public by the public library is age-inappropriate sexual material. To make such determinations, the board shall convene public hearings at which members of the community may present concerns to the board. After receiving comments from the public, the board shall examine individual instances of the questioned sexual material to determine whether it is age-inappropriate sexual material under this section.
(b) The board may order any material deemed to be age-inappropriate sexual
material to be removed from public access by minors at the public library.
(c) Any such determination or order made by the board shall be the final
determination or order on such materials, and shall not be subject to any review by the governing body of the public library, the state, or any political subdivision thereof. This subdivision shall not be construed to prohibit judicial review of any determination or order made by the board under this section.

Librarians study for years before they delve into collection development. But these five parents who will have absolute power that may not be appealed, are not determined by credentials, they are elected by a show of hands every two years. There is no way this will go well. As evidenced by a recent article about Florida, some people equate the mention of same-sex love with sex. Some people will feel that comics and graphic novels have no “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors” which our 2019 Comics in Education study shows isn’t true. No one knows what’s “age-appropriate” because some kids are reading Harry Potter at 6 and some kids stick with Green Eggs & Ham for a couple extra years. Neither of those kids is bad, or wrong, they are just individual humans — which is why there is already a system in place to deal with this sort of stuff. And the current system doesn’t put librarians in prison.

Any public library personnel who willfully neglects or refuses to perform any duty imposed on a public library under this section, or who willfully violates any provision of this section, is guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year.

Yes, This is Censorship

Beware when a politician tries to explain that something they are proposing isn’t censorship – because 90% of the time it is exactly that.

According to one local news site, Rep. Baker said,

The main thing that I’ve heard is that I want to ban books or ban content or censor content, and that’s not the case. I just think that there’s a line between what is open and available access for our children. Even the bill specifies it wouldn’t be taken out of the library, it would just be put in a section that’s not for children.

As we examined in a recent Kansas case where a parent objected repeatedly to LGBTQ+ kids books Lily & Dunkin, I Am Jazz, and George — moving kids books into the adult section limits the ability for kids to discover them on their own, relegating them to a section where they might as well be invisible, and send a signal to children that these books are wrong or bad. With the current system of inclusion, a child can come across books that speak to them, or spark an interest, and if their parent doesn’t feel they are ready, they don’t check out those books.
Rep. Baker also told the local news,

The main thing is I want to be able to take my kids to a library and make sure they’re in a safe environment, and that they’re not gonna be exposed to something that is objectionable material. Unfortunately, there are some libraries in the state of Missouri that have done this. And that’s a problem.

As Carrie Cline, Director of the Neosho Newton County Library points out “If it is okay with you that your child has chosen something off the shelf and wants to check it out, that’s between you and your family. I think if they have chosen something that you think is inappropriate for whatever reason, then I think that’s a great teachable moment to explain why you as a family think that that item is inappropriate, and put it back and don’t check it out.”

But Baker believes, “I just think that we need to be careful about funding something with our taxpayer dollars without parental consent.”

Parents, for better or worse, don’t get to decide where taxpayer dollars go. And Baker’s implication that parents don’t like Drag Queen Story Hours is just blatantly wrong. Does he think the kids take themselves to these events? They are happening in cities all over the country for a reason, parents think it’s fun. And it is.