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ACLU calls Missouri Republicans move to defund libraries 'abhorrent'

House Republicans approved a plan to slash state spending on local libraries to $0 after library groups sued to overturn state censorship of kids books.

ST. LOUIS — Despite a multi-billion-dollar surplus in the budget, Missouri House Republicans recently passed a plan to defund local libraries in an apparent act of spite against librarians who spoke out against censorship. 

The Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association, together with the ACLU, sued to block a recent state law that threatens to jail librarians if kids find "explicit sexual material" on their shelves.

When Missouri passed a new law last year outlawing "explicit sexual material" in school libraries, books like 'Batman: White Knight' were removed from school library shelves in Rockwood, 'The Handmaid's Tale' was removed in Webster Groves, 'The Walking Dead' in Lindbergh, and in Kirkwood, the graphic novel depiction of George Orwell's '1984.'

Rep. Cody Smith (R-Carthage), the top budget negotiator for House Republicans, reportedly said libraries shouldn't be able to use tax dollars to sue and oppose censorship. However, libraries and their lawyers at the ACLU said they weren't using public funds for this legal battle.

Free speech and human rights groups described the proposed budget cuts as vengeful political payback against libraries that sued to ask courts to stop state censorship of kids books.

In a statement, the ACLU of Missouri said their lawsuit challenging censorship hasn't cost taxpayers a dime and called the threat to defund libraries an "abhorrent" act of retribution.

"The House budget committee’s choice to retaliate against two private, volunteer-led organizations by punishing the patrons of Missouri’s public libraries is abhorrent," ACLU Missouri spokesman Tom Bastian said. "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."

"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," he said. 

Legislators and librarians pointed out that the state isn't hurting for money, and argued the budget cuts appear unnecessary for any fiscal reason. 

"There's definitely money, so I think this is more about the lawsuit than the budget," St. Louis County Library CEO Kristen Sorth said. 

"Especially this year," Rep. Deb Lavender (D-Manchester) said during floor debate last month. "We have the money. We have $16 billion in the bank today."

Missouri Democrats protested the plan to slash state spending on public libraries to zero dollars in the upcoming budget and offered an amendment to restore the funds. 

House Republicans refused to reinstate the funds after a brief debate over state censorship of school books. 

"When it hit libraries and schools, it started leading to a lot of schools banning a lot of books: a book ban," Rep. Peter Merideth (D-St. Louis) said. 

"That's not what this is," Rep. Dirk Deaton (R-Noel) replied. "Yes, a school can't assign Johnny a 'Hustler' magazine. That's true."

"Giving explicit material — giving Hustler to a kid in a library — was already illegal," Merideth responded. "That was already illegal, and we wouldn't have needed that bill. So what that bill did was create a chilling effect where schools and libraries started banning things like 'The Children's Bible' because of sex in it."

In total, researchers at PEN America counted nearly 300 books that local school libraries opted to remove from their shelves; though, after review, some of them were put back in place. Some school districts claimed they merely removed books from the shelves and did not implement a ban, though literature advocates decried that as a distinction without a difference. 

"It seems almost unfathomable that this is where we're at," PEN America's Freedom to Read Program Director Kasey Meehan said in an interview with 5 On Your Side. 

"What we see happening by some of our decision-makers and elected officials — to really narrow what is and is not okay in public libraries and in public schools — is alarming," Meehan said. "And it's limiting and it's restricting of what freedoms individuals have to read and to learn and to think broadly and diversely and inclusively."

PEN America, initially formed as a group of writers who value free expression, has morphed into something of a national free speech watchdog group monitoring book bans across the country. 

"PEN America opposes the idea that you can punish essentially those who are pushing back against censorship," Meehan said. 

Sorth says libraries are often the only reliable source of internet in rural Missouri.

"For rural libraries, this makes up a much larger portion of their budget than it does for larger public libraries, and in some cases, they're getting federal funds which is a match based on state funding, so it's a double hit to them." 

"So people come for jobs," she said. "A lot of rural job training centers are closing across the state... and to fill out federal forms. Veterans come to fill out forms for veterans benefits and things like that."

Otter Bowman works at a regional library in Central Missouri and serves as the President of the Missouri Library Association, one of the groups that sued to overturn state censorship of kids books in school libraries.

"The rural libraries, I feel, are the constituents who need the libraries the most, because they wouldn't necessarily have Internet access at home. They may or may not have computers," Bowman said.

Bowman urged members of the public to contact their legislators and voice their opinions over the proposal to defund libraries. 

"The folks who want to ban books are a really small, vocal minority," he said. "If you believe in diversity and easy access to information, please reach out to all of your representatives and let them know that."

Senator Lincoln Hough (R-Springfield) has expressed his intent to restore the library funds in the upper chamber. While Hough was unavailable for an interview on the matter, his legislative aides said he felt strongly about protecting library funds from the proposed cuts in the House. 

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