Missouri lawmakers move to strip public library funding in retaliation over book ban lawsuit
March 24, 2023 Updated Fri., March 24, 2023 at 9:26 p.m.
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Missouri lawmakers late Thursday evening moved to strip state funding from public libraries in retaliation for a lawsuit challenging a new state law that bans certain materials in school libraries.
The proposal, approved close to midnight by the House Budget Committee, would cut the entire $4.5 million in state aid that libraries were slated to get next year. The proposed library cut, along with other changes to the state’s roughly $50 billion budget, will now head to the full Missouri House.
“They are seeking to overturn that law that was unanimously supported by the House,” said state Rep. Cody Smith, a Carthage Republican and chair of the committee who proposed the cut. “I don’t think we should subsidize that.”
Smith’s cut was in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, on behalf of the Missouri Library Association and Missouri Association of School Librarians, challenging a state law passed last year that bans sexually explicit material from schools. The suit argues the law infringes on students’ First Amendment rights.
The Missouri Library Association and the ACLU of Missouri on Thursday pushed back on Smith’s claim that the state was subsidizing the lawsuit, telling the Star that the ACLU was representing both library groups pro bono.
“Our rural libraries rely the most heavily on this funding to serve their communities, and they will be crippled by this drastic budget cut,” the library association said in a statement Thursday.
The law, which was approved last year as part of a larger package addressing sexual assault survivors’ rights, prohibits images in school materials that could be considered sexually explicit, such as depictions of genitals or sex acts. It threatens librarians or other school employees who violate the law with a misdemeanor, risking up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine.
After the law went into effect in late August, districts across the state pulled hundreds of titles from school libraries, many of which are authored by or feature characters who are people of color or identify as LGBTQ.
Missouri Democrats on Thursday said the cut violates the state constitution, which requires lawmakers to support public libraries.
Tom Bastian, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Missouri, in a statement Thursday said the budget cut would punish Missouri library patrons, calling it “abhorrent.”
“If the members of the committee are concerned about preserving taxpayer funds, they should stop enacting laws they know do not meet constitutional muster, not burden local governments in a misguided effort to silence organizations who object to the legislature’s overreach,” the statement said.
State Rep. Doug Richey, an Excelsior Springs Republican, commended Smith for the cut earlier this week, saying it sent a message that lawmakers were unhappy with the lawsuit.
“Shame on libraries for doing what they’re doing,” he said.
State Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, a Kansas City Democrat, said the budget cut would hurt people who use public libraries as a vital resource, including to apply for jobs.
“By cutting this funding, we’re literally tying the hands of one of the most important resources in our communities,” she said.
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