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Growing up in a low-income family in rural Missouri, I was not always able to access a wide variety of books on my own. The school I went to was very small, and although the school’s library was wonderful, it did not always have the books I wanted to read. Going to the public library with my parents became a regular activity as my sister and I got to explore options otherwise unavailable to us. My local library became a sanctuary where I could explore the world through books and gain exposure to different perspectives.
In an alarming move, Missouri House Republicans have recently decided to defund public libraries that permit books containing “pornographic or obscene” material — a designation that has increasingly come to covertly signal for LGBTQ+ material. This decision not only challenges the fundamental principles of free speech and intellectual freedom, but also sets a dangerous precedent for the future of diversity and inclusivity in American society. Furthermore, this decision raises significant constitutional concerns. The motives behind this decision, its consequences for the LGBTQ+ community, the wider implications for American society and democracy, and the constitutional principles at stake serve as critical points of discussion in understanding the impact of defunding public libraries that house LGBTQ+ materials.
The recent decision to defund public libraries that house LGBTQ+ materials in Missouri has its roots in a legislative act that criminalizes providing explicit sexual material to a student. The act, as outlined in Section 573.550 of Missouri Senate Bill 775, states that an individual “affiliated with a public or private elementary or secondary school in an official capacity, commits the offense if they knowingly provide, assign, distribute, loan, or coerce acceptance of explicit sexual material to a student.” The act also covers possession with the intent to provide such material to a student. The offense is classified as a Class A misdemeanor.
Literature, like other forms of art, serves as a medium for self-expression and communication of diverse perspectives. Throughout history, various forms of artistic expression have been subject to censorship, often in the name of preserving societal norms or adhering to political ideologies. For instance, during the Cultural Revolution in China, numerous works of art and literature were destroyed or banned as they were considered counter-revolutionary. Similarly, visual art that challenges societal norms, such as the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano, has faced backlash and calls for censorship.
In particular, Missouri Republicans’ decision to defund public libraries that house LGBTQ+ materials seems to be driven by a combination of factors. The party's conservative base, which is often resistant to changes in societal norms, might perceive LGBTQ+ materials as a threat to traditional family values. Additionally, by taking this controversial stance, Missouri Republicans may be attempting to rally their base and gain political support due to many conservative parents’ opposition to their children’s access to LGBTQ+ materials.
The suppression of art in any form perpetuates discrimination, stifling the voices of marginalized communities and limiting the public’s exposure to perspectives that are different from their own. Missouri’s move to defund these public libraries is part of a broader pattern of accelerating state-level campaigns against libraries over books and materials featuring LGBTQ+ people and themes. This trend highlights increasing efforts by conservative lawmakers to suppress free speech and intellectual freedom, especially with regard to LGBTQ+ materials. With over 100 bills in state legislatures in at least 31 states this year aimed at cutting library budgets, implementing book rating systems, and regulating library collections, the rights of libraries, librarians, and their patrons are under significant attack.
As a staunch believer in the importance of intellectual freedom, I find this stance troubling. Not only has access to LGBTQ+ materials positively impacted me, but I've also witnessed the transformative effect it has had on my friends and acquaintances in helping them better understand themselves and others. One friend, in particular, found solace in a book about gender identity, which ultimately helped them come to terms with their own identity and find the support they needed. As they also grew up in the same rural, conservative community as me, they had very limited access to this information outside of the local library.
Without materials available in libraries, LGBTQ+ individuals in my state may find it more difficult to access information about their identities, mental health, and support networks like my friend did. The decision to defund these libraries also sends a clear message that the LGBTQ+ community is unwelcome, continuing to further stigmatization and isolation. As a result of reduced access to information and increased stigmatization, mental health issues within the LGBTQ+ community could rise.
Furthermore, the decision to defund public libraries that permit LGBTQ+ material sets a dangerous precedent for limiting free speech and intellectual freedom, undermining the very foundation of democratic society. The decision could also pave the way for future attempts to control and censor content that does not align with the views of those in power. Such actions contribute to the systemic erasure of marginalized voices, perpetuating inequity and discrimination.
This Missouri decision also raises significant constitutional concerns, including the violation of freedom of speech. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, which encompasses the freedom to receive and access information. By defunding public libraries that house LGBTQ+ materials, Missouri Republicans are effectively suppressing speech based on its content, which is a direct violation of First Amendment rights. The right to access information is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society, and the decision to defund libraries that allow LGBTQ+ materials disproportionately affects the LGBTQ+ community, hindering their constitutional right to access information relevant to their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Additionally, the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law for all citizens. By selectively targeting libraries that house LGBTQ+ materials, Missouri Republicans are discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community, violating their right to equal protection.
While some might argue that the decision does not limit free speech because parents can still choose to buy LGBTQ+ books for their children, this perspective overlooks the classist implications of such a policy. Not all families have the financial means to purchase books, which means that lower-income children would be disproportionately affected by the lack of access to these materials in public libraries. This situation could be seen as a violation of the equal opportunity clause in the Fourteenth Amendment, as it creates an unequal playing field for children from different socioeconomic backgrounds — further perpetuating social inequalities and undermining the principle of equal protection under the law.
Given the constitutional issues at stake, it is likely that the decision to defund public libraries with LGBTQ+ materials will face legal challenges. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or Lambda Legal could potentially file lawsuits arguing that the decision infringes upon the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the LGBTQ+ community. If successful, these legal challenges could lead to the reversal of the defunding decision and reaffirm the importance of constitutional protections for marginalized communities.
However, it is important to keep in mind that this proposed budget has only passed the House. Missouri senators, such as Missouri Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Lincoln Hough, claim that they will add the money for the libraries back into the budget.
The decision by Missouri Republicans to defund public libraries that house LGBTQ+ materials represents a concerning development with significant implications for the LGBTQ+ community and the broader principles of American democracy. This situation exemplifies a disturbing trend of state-level campaigns against libraries and the LGBTQ+ materials that they house and distribute. As diverse people and views become increasingly visible in the public sphere, it is essential to uphold values such as inclusivity, free speech, and intellectual freedom. Failure to do so could result in further marginalization and division within communities, ultimately weakening the very fabric of democracy.
Reflecting on my experience growing up in rural Missouri, public libraries played a crucial role in fostering intellectual growth and broadening perspectives. Access to a diverse array of literature at my local library enriched my life and expanded my understanding of the world. By challenging decisions like the one in Missouri and advocating for the constitutional rights of all citizens, including those of the LGBTQ+ community, we can help prevent further attacks on libraries, intellectual freedom, and the rights of marginalized individuals. The fight for a diverse and inclusive society that values the rights and freedoms of every individual must continue, as doing so safeguards the principles that define the nation.
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