Guest Editorials, Opinion

Missouri earns spot among the top book-banning states

Missouri achieved a dubious new status recently: It broke the top three in the list of U.S. states that have most egregiously moved to ban books from school libraries.

That’s according to a recent report by the nonprofit Pen America, which charts the nation’s troubling slide toward reactionary right-wing crackdowns on books — including controversial social commentary, serious political criticism and even classic literature.

In fact, the only two states with worse records than Missouri right now in terms of school library censorship are, respectively, Florida and Texas. Enough said.

More than 40% of the bans occurred in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis’ infamous “Don’t say ‘gay’” crusade against any mention of LGBTQ issues in school curriculum is having its intended effect. Texas was second with 625 bans, followed by Missouri with 333.

Missouri in 2022 passed a law threatening a year in prison to any educator who “provides, assigns, supplies, distributes, loans, or coerces acceptance of or the approval of the providing of explicit sexual material.” It contains exceptions for teaching issues like art history and sex education — but what teacher wants to personally test how some zealous local prosecutor will decide to interpret those boundaries?

Like virtually all the school curriculum crackdowns so in vogue around the country right now, the Missouri law was based not on any particular instances of pornography showing up in classrooms but rather on the atmosphere of right-wing extremism so pervasive in red states today. The Pen America study noted that fully 88% of the book-ban cases it recorded happened in states that voted Republican in the 2020 presidential election.

In this political climate, it’s no wonder school districts are yanking books from shelves at the first sign of controversy. As the Missouri Independent noted recently, in the Wentzville School District alone, school librarians temporarily removed almost 200 books, including works by Mark Twain and William Shakespeare and even a graphic novel depicting Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

How do campaigns against supposed obscenity morph into banning Shakespeare?

Because that’s the natural outcome once book-banning hysteria begins: It spreads like, well, fire.

We have no illusions that Missouri’s right-wing political leaders will view Missouri’s national ranking for intolerance as anything other than a cultural victory. Performative intolerance is, after all, their whole project. The question is whether Missouri voters will continue to reward their ideological antics with votes.

This editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.