Kansas City – The Missouri ACLU filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Jackson County on behalf of the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association challenging the government censorship law that caused school districts across the state to order the removal of hundreds of titles from library shelves.
Missouri Revised Statute §573.550, passed last session in Senate Bill 775, removes not only from professional librarians – who have long abided by well-established selection criteria for choosing appropriate and educational materials – but also from parents the decision as to what is appropriate for their students and children. 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.
“Extreme politicians in Jefferson City are using the government-knows-best model for legislation – in this case telling parents what their children can and can’t read at school and, in some cases, at home, while imposing criminal penalties on those who might disagree,” said Gillian Wilcox, Deputy Director for Litigation at the ACLU of Missouri. “The ACLU will always fight the erosion of students’ First Amendment rights and laws that are vague and overbroad.”
In addition to suppressing students’ First Amendment rights, the law utilizes vague language and invites the government to intrude on actions that happen outside of the school as it does not differentiate a school-affiliated person’s official capacity from their personal capacity leaving school personnel open to prosecution based on what they teach their children at home.
“The Missouri Association of School Librarians strives to uphold the core tenets of school librarianship, including both intellectual freedom and the freedom to read,” said Melissa Corey, MASL President for 2022-23. “School librarians in Missouri serve as trained, certified experts when curating developmentally appropriate collections for our students. This statute has created a chilling effect on school library collection development, resulting in fewer representative books within our collections, due to fear of prosecution.”
"The Missouri Library Association stands in solidarity with librarians throughout the state, including its members and members of MASL, as we uphold our foremost professional ethic: Intellectual freedom,” said Joe Kohlburn, Missouri Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee Chair for 2022. “The law presents specific peril for school librarians, but also endangers the work and livelihoods of public and academic librarians who work with K-12 schools in various capacities. Librarians of all types are thoughtful, careful, and principled professionals who are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring access to information and collections, and providing collections that reflect a broad range of perspectives and life experiences. Librarians have been undermined politically in this state for long enough, and the fear of prosecution is an ongoing issue for keeping qualified professionals in Missouri, as well as bringing new people into the profession."
Missouri students have experienced an increase in attacks from the government on their First Amendment rights over the past two years. Most recently, the Secretary of State submitted a proposed rule that would withhold funding from public libraries to promote and evoke censorship. Despite receiving a record number of public comments, nearly 20,000 with a majority in opposition to the rule, the government is considering implementing the rule anyway.
During the same period, the ACLU of Missouri has fought to protect the First Amendment rights of students by filing lawsuits challenging book bans and automatic-removal policies involving the Wentzville and Independence School Districts. In Wentzville, the lawsuit led to the return of seven of eight books to library shelves. The lawsuit against the Independence School Board’s automatic-removal policy is pending.
Today’s lawsuit requests the court to find Missouri Revised Statute § 573.550 unconstitutional and render it unenforceable or, alternatively, to enter judgement defining and clarifying how and when it applies to eliminate the ongoing confusion and the threat of arbitrary enforcement.
Read full petition.