Missouri ACLU sues on behalf of library associations over book-ban law
First posted April 17, 2023 11:19am EDT
Last updated April 17, 2023 11:19am EDT
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The Missouri chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in a state circuit court on behalf of two Missouri library associations, alleging that a state law banning books with sexually explicit images from school libraries was unconstitutional.
The Missouri Association of School Librarians (MASL), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for media specialists in Missouri schools, advocates for adequate school library resources and services statewide.
The Missouri Library Association (MLA), a nonpartisan statewide membership organization, has promoted library services and the profession of librarianship in Missouri since 1900.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri (ACLU), the state’s chapter of the ACLU, “defends civil liberties and the principles of equality and justice in Missouri through its litigation, legislative and public education programs.”
State Senator Rick Brattin (R) represents the 31st District, encompassing the western counties of Bates, Cass, and Johnson. During his time as a state representative, from 2011 – 2019, Brattin served as the majority floor whip and was the senior member of both the local government and veterans committees. He is a Marine Corps veteran.
Jean Peters Baker, a Democrat, was appointed to the Jackson County prosecutor’s office in May 2011 and elected to her position in November 2012. She was reelected in 2020.
On Aug. 28, 2022, a Missouri law restricting books containing sexually explicit images from school libraries took effect. Prior to the law’s passage, this provision had been pushed by Brattin, who attached it to a bill aimed at protecting sexual assault survivors. Under the law, librarians and educators who showed students literary sexual images could face up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine, KWMU reported.
Many residents and library groups protested against the law before it took effect. Melissa Corey, the president of MASL, told The Associated Press, “When you are looking at challenging or reviewing a book it really becomes a very slippery slope.”
On Nov. 16, a report by PEN America found that nearly 300 books had been banned in at least 11 school districts throughout Missouri since the law took effect. The list of banned books included graphic novel adaptations of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the Bible, and works by Margaret Atwood and Lois Lowry.
On Feb. 16, 2023, on behalf of MASL and the MLA, the Missouri ACLU filed a lawsuit against Baker in the Circuit Court of Jackson County, alleging that the book-banning law was unconstitutional because of its vague language, which amounted to the suppression of both students’ and educators’ First Amendment rights and unreasonable government censorship.
The ACLU stated that the law “creates fear through the threat of arbitrary enforcement of imprisonment or fines leaving school districts faced with the ostensible legal dilemma of protecting their staff against potential prosecution or upholding the students’ First Amendment rights.”
According to the ACLU, the law also prompted schools across the state to remove hundreds of books, many of which were written by or about LGBTQ+ people. In the St. Louis area, more than half of the books that were immediately removed were about LGBTQ+ individuals or people of color, KWMU reported. While the law grants exceptions to artwork used for science courses, some of the removed books also included human anatomy books. Certain graphic novels and Holocaust history books were removed as well.
Corey stated that the law “has created a chilling effect on school library collection development, resulting in fewer representative books within our collections due to fear of prosecution.”
Baker’s office remains quiet, but tweets from Baker follow
On Feb. 24, Michael Mansur, a spokesman for Baker’s office, told the press that her office had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment, The AP reported.
But on March 4, 2023, Baker tweeted a list of her week’s highlights, which she said explained “why tiredness is [her] constant companion.” Number 8 on that list read: “Librarians sue me for a book ban law,” accompanied by an emoji face raising one eyebrow, as if to convey skepticism or disapproval. She later clarified the point by tweeting, “ACLU confirmed just my office is being sued on behalf of librarians for Mo obscenity law, awaiting formal petition” with an emoji of someone shrugging their shoulders.