I read banned books.

The First Amendment is specific in its second command: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

There are certain classes of speech that are “unprotected,” including libel and slander, “fighting words,” sedition and obscenity. But definitions have changed over the years. What was considered obscene a generation ago may be seen as “mild” under today’s standards.

Missouri Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, has introduced HB 2044 that would punish libraries and librarians for having “age-inappropriate” materials on their library selves. Known as the “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act,” the proposed law states that “No public library shall receive any state aid under this section if such library allows minors to access age-inappropriate sexual materials in violation of section 182.821.”

A librarian found in violation of this proposed law could be “guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction shall be punished by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars or by imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed one year.”

This is tantamount to censorship, something the courts have been particularly sensitive to over the years.

It was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in Jacobellis v. Ohio who famously said about obscenity:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description (of obscene), and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it … .”

To my knowledge, SCOTUS has never defined what is or is not “age-appropriate,” but this proposed law does. It defines age-inappropriate as “any description or representation, in any form, of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse … ” and “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors … .”

But who is to decide what age-appropriate is?

That will be left to a parental library review board consisting of five elected persons who reside within the library district and who would “determine whether any sexual material provided to the public by the public library is age-inappropriate sexual material.”

Librarians would be excluded from participating in a review board even if they are citizens of the district, which means that making material selections for youth collections will be done by “committees of unqualified, untrained and potentially exceedingly biased individuals within a community.”

There is one thing that the bill does not address: That so-called offensive material could be found anywhere within the library, including online books, and not just in the children’s section, as long as kids can access the material. This is book banning.

On his Facebook page, Baker wrote that his bill is not subscribing to censorship but that “it is appropriate to protect our children from objectionable sexual material that is not age-appropriate.”

He continued: “In summary, I don’t think our tax dollars should be funding ‘Drag Queen Story Hours’ or allowing children to access age-inappropriate literary material. I believe that local control with parental oversight seems to be the best way to address this issue constitutionally.”

Justice William J. Brennan wrote in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “We recognize the legitimate and indeed exigent interest of States and localities throughout the Nation in preventing the dissemination of material deemed harmful to children. But that interest does not justify a total suppression of such material, the effect of which would be to ‘reduce the adult population ... to reading only what is fit for children.’”

Brennan also wrote in the 1973 case of Miller v. California that national media markets require national standards. Therefore, local standards need to be eliminated from the discussion of what is appropriate, for most of the materials available in the public libraries are nationally available.

Would this proposed law allow parental review boards to ban the Torah, Bible or Quran? What about The American Heritage Dictionary, “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin” or the entire Harry Potter series? How about art books showing nudes painted and sculptured by the masters.

HB 2044 becomes a slippery slope argument to ban books not suitable to a biased parental review board. What is to stop our legislators from banning books concerning anti-war activist activities, books critical of the government or government officials, or books concerning issues contrary to general understanding?

James Tager, deputy director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America, wrote, “Every reader and writer in the country should be horrified, absolutely horrified, at this bill.”

I agree. What is obscene is the banning of books, movies and pictures that violate someone else’s tortured morals.

David Rosman is an award-winning editor, writer and professional speaker. You can read more of David’s commentaries at ColumbiaMissourian.com and InkandVoice.com.


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