Missouri: Part 1 — Banning Comics in St. Louis

This week, at a local school board meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, a group of fifteen parents and students spoke in opposition to the recent removal of multiple titles in their school district. The speakers were alarmed that the school year began with books pulled from the shelves. What is especially troubling about the removal is that a large amount of the books are graphic novels.

Why the sudden push to get graphic novels off the shelves? It all boils down to a new Missouri law that went into effect on August 28 as a part of Missouri’s Senate Bill 755. The bill allows criminal penalties for individual educators who grant students access to books that contain “explicit sexual material.” This infraction is considered a class A misdemeanor and punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $2,000 fine. The explicit sexual material can be any depiction of sex acts or genitalia, except for “works of art” and books of scientific significance.

The bill has sparked districts to purge their collections. At last count, 114 books were removed in the St. Louis area, and in Wentzville School District, 223 books were removed “for further review.” The visual nature of comics and graphic novels has forced them to bear the burden of this bill. The standard “works of art” seems only to apply to fine art. Graphic novels require the same consideration as prose when determining if they are a work of art and in some cases don’t seem to be receiving that.

In the list of books removed, there are several examples of graphic novel adaptations affected where the original novel is retained. Some examples are The Handmaid’s Tale, American Gods, Crime and Punishment, and 1984. Yes, that 1984! Also removed from the school libraries were autobiographical and biographical materials, including Gender Queer, Fun Home, Maus, and A Dangerous Women: Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman.

Not all schools are reacting to the bill in the same way. While some schools are removing stacks of books, others have stood by their collections and refused any removal. Two board members in one district asked for an appropriate review process after book removal. In a statement made by ACLU Missouri, they point out that the books have “already been screened.” Selecting books for the district already ensures, to a large degree, there is no explicit material.

The heat from book bans has not died down, and ALA projects the country will set a new record for book challenges this year at our current rate. Teachers and librarians have been verbally attacked and threatened, and board meetings have become circus events. Under the new law there is an unspoken assumption that if a book is challenged and found not suitable for the district, the education professional who handled it will be swept up and charged with a misdemeanor despite the book being a protected work. One wonders if there is any credence to this unspoken threat.

A spokesperson for the St. Charles County police department stated they would “redirect any concerns related to academic curriculum and library book content to the citizen’s respective school district for review.” A St. Louis County prosecutor remarked that they would handle book complaints based on their merit but felt there were more important issues. These responses don’t make it seem that there will be much use for the new law.

The bill seems structured to cause fear, and it is a fair question to ask if the legislators intended this as a law to be put to use or law to put in place for intimidation. The mixed response of some districts removing books and some retaining them is telling. SB 775 has some serious issues.

Next week we will release part two of the series, which will take a closer look at the bill itself. What is the language used, how does it conflict with the First Amendment, and why is the presentation misleading?

CBLDF and its partners have been battling ongoing and organized attempts to censor comics and other books in schools and libraries. You can join the struggle by making a donation or reporting censorship today!