Editorial Roundup: Missouri

Kansas City Star. November 28, 2022.

Editorial: Missouri’s Jay Ashcroft aims to ‘hold libraries accountable,’ opening door to book bans

A new rule proposed by Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft could kick open the door for special interest groups to dictate what books and materials are available for any child at local libraries.

Thank goodness libraries in Kansas City and St. Louis are pushing back against this state proposal, saying the rule runs counter to their right-to-read mission and intrudes on local control.

Ashcroft wants libraries to adopt written policies determining which books are appropriate for each age group, and allow parents to challenge those library decisions. As currently worded, the rule could allow challenges to come from far-right activists outside the state. And we’ve seen how in town after town across the country, conservative groups are challenging books whose ideas they disagree with.

Ashcroft himself might not be attempting to ban books, but his rule would invite others to do so.

The secretary of state, who by statute controls Missouri’s library system, insists the proposed rule is not anti-library. “We believe libraries are fundamental, and we have no interest in banning books,” Ashcroft told us, adding that his administration has contributed millions more in funding to the state’s libraries than any other in recent years. The lion’s share of funding for Kansas City area libraries comes from local tax dollars.

The rule prohibits children under the age of 18 from checking out books without a parent’s permission. That could mean a teen — 15, 16 or 17 years old — could not check out any book without first getting parental permission — a ridiculous expectation that serves to stifle reading.

The proposed rule says no state funds “shall be used to purchase or acquire materials in any form that appeal to the prurient interest of any minor.” What does that really even mean?

“It is going to have to be defined so we know what that is, because it is just too nebulous,” said Susan Wray, acting director of the three-county Mid-Continent Public Library system.

That vagueness seems intentional.

“Somebody could object to just about anything,” Wray said.

Moreover, public libraries aren’t just for children, so what would be the broader impact of this rule on the purchase of literature and other materials?

Across the country, conservative groups have wreaked havoc in schools, opposing masks during the pandemic and fighting against nonexistent “critical race theory” curricula. Now, to keep their political base engaged, they have escalated to challenging books — often about LGBTQ and Black people — demanding their removal from shelves.

In March, Mid-Continent Public Library trustees set out to block library programs to help LGBTQ youths, calling them pornographic. In August, Missouri adopted a law proposed by Republican state Sen. Rick Brattin, of Harrisonville, that bans school libraries from offering books that include sexual images.

That same month, South Carolina state Sen. Josh Kimbrell publicly demanded librarians remove multiple books intended for children from kids’ sections or face defunding. News outlets reported that he stood next to a leader with the anti-LGBTQ group Focus on the Family and said, “I’m trying to stop an indoctrination campaign against kids.”

The American Library Association this year reported a record number of attempts made to ban books in public and school libraries, calling it an “unprecedented” year of censorship.

Ashcroft said he proposed the rule to “hold libraries accountable.” But he also said he has not received complaints against libraries here.

The proposed rule ignores the varied intellectual developments of children. What is age appropriate for one child may not be for another. Those decisions are best made by a child’s parents. No parent should be allowed to make a decision that infringes on the freedoms of all other library users.

It is up to the library to determine age-appropriate material, which they do using the age appropriateness “suggested by the publisher or producers of the literature or materials,” said Joel Jones, deputy director of library services at Kansas City Public Library.

Trustees there drafted a resolution rejecting Ashcroft’s rule, saying it “stands steadfast in its commitment to uphold intellectual freedom.” St. Louis Public Library officials have also rejected the proposal.

Missourians have until Dec. 15 to comment on Ashcroft’s rule by sending comments@sos.mo.gov with “15 CSR 30-200.015” in the subject line. We encourage residents to do so. After all, public libraries that provide a wide range of materials and services to diverse communities play a fundamental role in our nation’s democracy.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch. November 24, 2022.

Editorial: Upcoming execution shows the inherent indefensibility of capital punishment

There’s some irony to the fact that convicted killer Kevin Johnson’s 19-year-old daughter has to petition a federal court seeking to witness her father’s scheduled execution on Tuesday, challenging a state law that bars anyone under 21 from witnessing executions: Johnson himself was 19 when he committed his undeniably heinous crime.

So 19 is too young to witness an execution, but not too young to earn one? That’s only part of the convoluted logic necessary to defend the death penalty, in this case or any other.

Johnson, now 37, doesn’t deserve to ever walk free again. But his age at the time — as well as serious questions about his mental health and whether racism factored into his death sentence — are reasons enough to commute the sentence to life in prison without possibility of parole.

The horror of Johnson’s crime is undebatable. On July 5, 2005, he ambushed Kirkwood police Sgt. William McEntee in his car and shot him seven times. He delivered the final shots after the wounded officer was out of the vehicle and on his hands and knees.

Earlier in the day, McEntee had been among officers who served a probation-violation warrant on Johnson. During the confrontation, Johnson’s younger brother fled to a neighboring house and had a seizure from a congenital heart condition. Johnson alleged at trial that McEntee prevented his mother from going to the neighboring house to aid his brother, who died later at a hospital. None of that mitigates what Johnson did later — but it does challenge the prosecution’s claim that the shooting was coolly premeditated, a component in seeking the death penalty.

Unlike too many other Black defendants, Johnson didn’t face an all-white jury, but race was a factor in his trials. In the first, when the judge said he intended to ensure a racial mix in the jury, the prosecutor derided that as “silly” and asked, “Why am I being penalized?” — implying that more Black jurors would make a conviction less likely. Indeed, the six Black and six white jurors couldn’t agree on a first-degree murder verdict. Johnson was later convicted by a second jury, which had just three Black members.

Data has long shown that Black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants who commit the same crimes. Further, defendants who have money are less likely to be condemned than those who, like Johnson, are impoverished. Does any of this sound like justice?

If Gov. Mike Parson refuses to commute Johnson’s sentence, which is likely, the Missouri Supreme Court, in hearing arguments Monday, should delay the execution. Underlying all the specific arguments in this case is the broader one: Capital punishment is a barbaric practice that makes America a pariah in the advanced world and lowers society to the level of the very killers it seeks to punish.

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St. Joseph News Press. November 25, 2022.

Editorial: Sulky students and real-world lessons

If you haven’t heard of the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, you probably will in the coming weeks.

Known as MOHELA, this state-affiliated servicer of federal student loans finds itself at the center of a legal battle that could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s because the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that President Biden’s $400 billion student debt write-off could cause irreparable harm to MOHELA and the state of Missouri.

The Eighth Circuit granted an injunction to Biden’s loan forgiveness plan, noting that state law directs MOHELA to distribute $350 million into a fund for capital projects at public colleges. If there’s no student loan servicing, then MOHELA is less able to meet its obligations.

To some degree, MOHELA is a proxy in all of this. Six Republican-led states, including Missouri, are using it as the vehicle to challenge what they see as one of the most significant presidential abuses of power in decades. The Eighth Circuit didn’t rule on the advisability of student loan forgiveness but affirmed that MOHELA has standing in the case.

The court also noted that the injunction doesn’t hurt anyone at this point because no one has been forced to make a payment for months. Therefore, Biden made this latest legal obstacle more likely because he can’t stop himself from granting repayment extensions.

The bigger issue, the one that’s overlooked in the legal and political back-and-forth, is that there are winners and losers in student debt forgiveness. Graduates and current college students come off as incredulous and somewhat sulky at the thought of someone putting an obstacle between themselves and the ability to walk away from their debt.

Advocates tend to act like the debt just goes away, but it does not. That should have been covered somewhere in a 100-level course. The $400 billion gets transferred to the federal budget deficit, meaning that the cost is ultimately covered by future generations saddled with ever-growing federal debt and interest payments on it.

Current and future graduates can make a fairness argument, noting the skyrocketing cost of a college education. That is true, but it’s also true that the average graduate with a bachelor’s degree made more than $50,000 a year in 2021, compared to $18,000 in 1980.

Perhaps today’s graduates would want to get their loans forgiven in exchange for the $18,000 salary that previous generations earned with their diplomas?

That would make it seem less like an entitlement, which it is not. Loan forgiveness is simply the kind of issue that forces policymakers to consider the trade-offs and the near- and long-term consequences.

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