COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, a top Republican prospect for governor, wants to block public funding for library books that might appeal to the “prurient” — meaning sexual — interests of minors.
Ashcroft proposed the new rule on libraries this week. It does not include a more-detailed definition or include examples of which specific books would be restricted as appealing sexually to children or teenagers.
In a statement, the Missouri Library Association called Ashcroft’s rule “an infringement on the professional judgment of librarians, and an effort to further stoke division in the communities that libraries serve.”
The group warned that small and urban libraries, which rely most on state funding, would face the greatest impact from the policy.
Ashcroft on Friday said he didn’t propose the rule in response to any particular book but hoped it would prevent potential issues.
“I know that a lot of Missouri libraries are doing a good job on this and reflecting the values of the taxpayers that paid for the materials,” Ashcroft said. “But I just think it’s good to have some guidelines to make sure that we’re reinforcing that parents are in control.”
The proposal would require state-funded libraries to adopt policies on the age-appropriateness of literature, which is already common at both school and public libraries in the state. And under the rule, anyone could challenge access to books. The proposal is what’s known as an administrative rule, which would have the same effect as a law if enacted.
Libraries that violate the rules would risk losing state funding, which is doled out by the Secretary of State’s Office through the state librarian.
Missouri Association of School Librarians President Melissa Corey said K-12 school libraries don’t receive many state grants, so the rules likely would impact local public libraries the most. Data provided by the Secretary of State’s Office show about 10 of 210 grants awarded in 2021 went to school libraries compared to public libraries.
Joe Kohlburn, who leads the Missouri Library Association’s committee on intellectual freedom, said books by queer and Black authors and books about women’s rights and reproductive health are frequent targets of book challenges in Missouri.
“It’s a culture-wars thing,” he said, adding that Ashcroft is attempting to “leverage the funding the State Library offers to undermine libraries in general and undermine their ability to serve historically marginalized populations.”
Ashcroft has not yet announced a 2024 gubernatorial bid, but he listed his intentions for “statewide office” — not secretary of state, as he’s done in the past — on recent campaign documents.
He’s considered a strong potential gubernatorial candidate in large part because of name recognition. His father, John Ashcroft, previously served as Missouri governor, U.S. senator and as U.S. attorney general under former President George W. Bush.
The proposed rule comes as book challenges rise across the nation. Book challenges reached a decades-long high last year, according to the American Library Association, and challenges are set to break records again this year.
The ALA documented 681 challenges to books through August, involving 1,651 different titles. In all of 2021, the ALA listed 729 challenges, directed at 1,579 books. Because the ALA relies on media accounts and reports from libraries, the actual number of challenges is likely far higher, the library association believes.
A new law passed by Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature this year made it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail for educators to give K-12 students books with photos, drawings or other visual depictions that are sexually explicit.
There are exceptions for anatomy, biology, art or other images that are educational, and the law does not ban written descriptions that might be considered sexually explicit.
Ashcroft on Friday stressed that he doesn’t believe his proposed rule would ban any books.
In Missouri, the state Constitution and state laws give statewide elected officials and state agencies the power to create additional guidelines beyond laws to help run government.
Ashcroft’s administrative rule proposal will be open for public comment Nov. 15 through Dec. 15. After that, his office has three months to rewrite the rule based on feedback, submit it as is or rescind it.
“Depending on the comments, we could potentially make a change,” Ashcroft said. “I really hope that the people of the state help us to make the rule as good as possible.”
The Missouri Association of School Librarians in a statement also asked residents to “support libraries – public, academic, and school – across Missouri and provide feedback on this restrictive and harmful rule change.”
A special legislative committee also reviews proposed rules to make sure they don’t go beyond agencies’ authority, but the committee can’t veto a rule because of a policy disagreement.