Saturday, April 13

Tennessee House passes bill giving state commission approval of school library books

Tennessee lawmakers on Wednesday passed a bill that would allow the state’s textbook commission to approve or reject books in school libraries.

A version of the legislation passed the Tennessee House of Representatives with a last-minute amendment that gives a state-appointed textbook commission the “final say” on books in public school libraries. The bill also seeks to increase the number of members on the textbook commission and require it to issue guidance to local education agencies when reviewing library collections.

The approved bill allows the textbook commission to review the list of materials in public school library collections and “approve or reject” the list of materials if they are deemed inappropriate.

The state textbook panel will get “the final say on what goes into our libraries, so that we’re making sure we’re putting age-appropriate books there,” Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican and sponsor of the House bill, said during voting.

While debating the bill, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat, asked why “are we usurping the authority of librarians and placing the state in the place of deciding what’s appropriate and what’s not for our children?”

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, speaks during a House floor debate in Nashville, Tenn., on April 6, 2016.Erik Schelzig / AP file

Sexton said that there were books in school libraries that were “obscene in nature” and not age-appropriate.

Clemmons said librarians were “adequately trained and educated and knowledgeable enough” with the experience to make such decisions.

“What are you gonna do with them? Are you going to put them in the street? Light them on fire? Where are they going?” I have asked about the books that are removed.

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“I don’t have a clue, but I would burn them,” Sexton said.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Democrat, said history hasn’t looked fondly on those who banned or burned books.

“I’m not sure that is who we want to be included with,” Johnson said.

Sexton responded that he wouldn’t be on the commission, so there wouldn’t be any book burning.

“We’re not banning books. We’re just removing them from the library,” he said.

The state House of Representatives passed the bill as amended Wednesday, which now differs from a Senate version. The Senate version was posted on the Senate calendar for Wednesday.

The bill comes as Republican legislatures and activists across the country have targeted curriculum and called for the removal of books dealing with racism or sexuality, the majority of them featuring LGBTQ characters and issues.

School districts in 26 states have banned or opened investigations into more than 1,100 books, according to an April report from PEN America, a literary and free expression advocacy organization that compiled data on such bans from July 2021 to March.

Earlier this year, a Tennessee school board voted to remove “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade reading list because of profanity and nudity.

Maus Graphic Novel
A polish complete edition of the ‘Maus’ graphic novel about the Holocaust, awarded a Pulitzer Prize, was banned by the school board in Tennessee in Jan. 2022.Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via AP

Critics of the bill gathered at the Tennessee State Capitol ahead of the vote.

High school junior Lindsay Hornick said she understands parents’ concerns about what their children are reading, but said, “choosing my own literature has made me a more well-rounded individual. I would hate to see my education system be limited by a board that has almost no diversity.”

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“There is nearly no topic that can be discussed in schools anymore without controversy,” she said.

After the protest, Rev. Kevin Riggs, a pastor at Franklin Community Church, said the bill would see the “diminishment of voices of color, the diminishment of the LGBT community, the diminishment of different perspectives.”

“This is all working hand in glove with all of the other censorship of the banning that we’ve seen,” he said.

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