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Opinion: Ashcroft’s Rule for State Dollars to Public Libraries is Common Sense

By now you have likely heard that Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, whose office houses the state librarian, has proposed an administrative rule pertaining to state appropriations for public libraries that has repeatedly been described as a “book ban.” This is a lie. 

To suggest Ashcroft’s rule change would “ban books” is intellectually dishonest and is tantamount to pure propaganda. Leveling the charge of banning books is no small thing, those doing so must know it is incendiary in America to say such a thing and is sure to get lots of attention. 

Make no mistake, book bans are real in certain parts of the world, but you will be hard pressed to find them in Missouri. For example, in North Korea mere possession of a Bible incurs the full wrath of the state, including public execution. Suffice to say, there are books in North Korea which are banned. No argument from me. 

Ashcroft’s rule, as summarized by the Secretary of State’s office, would see to it that:

“[L]ibraries would adopt written policies determining what material is age-appropriate. As well, state funds could not be used to purchase or acquire inappropriate materials in any form that appeal to the prurient interest of a minor.

Libraries also would be required to honor a parent’s decision as to what material their child has access to in the library. Parents would have the right to challenge a library’s age-appropriate designation for any material.”

Nothing included in this proposed policy would preclude anyone from say, going to a bookstore or online retailer and purchasing any book. Nor would it impose any civil or criminal penalty for obtaining or possessing any book. That would rightly be described as a book ban, which as previously discussed, you can find examples of in certain places around the world today. I have seen no one suggest that this would be the outcome of this policy being put in place. Clearly, what we have in this situation is that of using the same words, but having a different dictionary. 

So, under what definition is Ashcroft’s proposed policy a “book ban?” I’m glad you asked. In an opinion piece in the St Joesph News-Press this proposal is described as a continuation of the “movement afoot to ban certain books from getting into the hands of schoolchildren.” 

To support this, the piece cites a report from PEN America. PEN stands for Poets, Essayists, and Novelists. According to its website, “PEN America works to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.” The report, concerning books in schools, covers the period from July 2021 to June of 2022 and “lists 2,532 individual instances of books being banned.” 

Getting back to the definition, this is how a “book ban” is defined in the report:

“PEN America defines a school book ban as any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other government officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”

There you have it – if a book is moved to a different area of the library, or even placed on a different shelf that might diminish it from the view of young eyes you have banned the book. The citizens of Communist China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea must have great empathy for all those suffering in America from the “book bans” that move books to different shelves. 

The Missouri Library Association released a statement that read in part: “Libraries support access to information and ideas. The placement of books and materials in libraries is something that should be left up to people with training and experience in the profession of librarianship.” I do appreciate the candor – they are clear that when it comes to public libraries, the public just needs to get out of the way. 

Make no mistake; I do not think public libraries should use state tax dollars to acquire sensual, sexual materials that are aimed at minor children. Furthermore, I am confident the overwhelming majority of Missourians, of all political persuasions, share this basic view.  

The outrage is shocking considering the rule would not prevent public libraries from using other funds to obtain these materials, but only that they could not use state dollars to do so. I also find it revealing that all those objecting are adults. Which brings me to this observation – what we are talking about are adults arguing with other adults about what content taxpayers should make available for children in public libraries.

I think Secretary Ashcroft’s rule is common sense and should be implemented. I do recognize libraries and librarians have a role to play. I would understand if, as a matter of principle, they refused to attest to the conditions of the rule and forgo state grants. I also want to make clear that legislators have a clear role when appropriating state dollars among competing priorities. Appropriations should serve the highest possible priority and be in line with the desires of the people of Missouri who, after all, pay the taxes.