Missouri Republicans threaten to defund public libraries in stunning move over book bans

Republican state lawmakers in Missouri have threatened to defund all of the state’s public libraries in a drastic budget proposal that has magnified the accelerating state-level campaigns against libraries over books and materials with LGBT+ people and themes.

The state’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted on a state budget proposal last week that sets the library’s budget at zero, eliminating millions of dollars for the state’s libraries.

Lawmakers in Missouri’s state Senate, however, plan to put $4.5m back into the budget proposal that was stripped out of the House version of the spending plan.

Missouri’s legislative debate over library funding follows a recently enacted state law that broadly bans educators from “providing sexually explicit material” to students, punishable by up to a $2,000 fine or a year in jail.

That language has had a chilling effect in schools and libraries across the state, where officials preemptively removed titles over fears that right-wing activists would mount money-draining legal challenges against them, according to civil rights advocacy group PEN America. Between August and November, state authorities banned more than 300 books in at least 11 school districts, the group found.

In February, the ACLU of Missouri, the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the ban violated the First Amendment.

In apparent retaliation, Republican lawmakers proposed stripping $4.5m allocated to the state’s public libraries each year, arguing that the state should not be “subsidizing” the libraries’ lawsuit. The ACLU of Missouri is representing the libraries for free, at no cost to taxpayers.

A statement from the ACLU of Missouri called the budget threats “abhorrent.”

“As with every case when the ACLU represents someone, we are not charging our clients to challenge the unconstitutional book ban the legislature passed last year,” according to the organisation, which called on lawmakers to “stop enacting laws they know do not meet constitutional muster” and “burden local governments in a misguided effort to silence organizations who object to the legislature’s overreach.”

The threats to Missouri’s libraries are echoed in state legislatures and local governments across the US, with right-wing activist campaigns against titles by and about LGBT+ people or materials that discuss sexuality and honest depictions of racism and discrimination.

More than 100 bills in state legislatures in at least 31 states this year threaten to cut library budgets, implement book rating systems, regulate the kinds of books and materials in their collections, and amend obscenity definitions that preempt First Amendment protections, according to a database from EveryLibrary.

Last year, voters in Michigan’s Jamestown Township – population 10,000 – rejected renewals for two tax proposals that have funded the community’s Patmos Library for decades. Without that funding, the library is expected to close in 2024.

In Texas, officials in Llano County are considering plans to “cease operations” entirely at the county’s library system, after a judge ordered the library to return books that were targeted for removal.

According to a complaint, books removed from library shelves by Llano County officials include They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; three books from Dawn McMillan’s I Need a New Butt! series; titles from Maurice Sendak; a book titled It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health; and children’s picture books with “silly themes and rhymes” including Larry the Farting Leprechaun and Gary the Goose and His Gas on the Loose.

In a statement defending librarians and libraries from a wave of legislative threats last month, the president of the American Library Association condemned the “vocal minority” stoking “the flames of controversy around books.”

“Every day professional librarians sit down with parents to thoughtfully determine what reading material is best suited for their children’s needs,” ALA president Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada said. “Now, many library workers face threats to their employment, their personal safety, and in some cases, threats of prosecution for providing books to youth that they and their parents want to read.

“Our nation cannot afford to lose the library workers who lift up their communities and safeguard our First Amendment freedom to read.”