Story at a glance
- Tennessee House Republicans have filed a bill to remove certain books deemed “obscene” or “harmful to minors” from public school libraries
- The bill would amend Tennessee law to prohibit public K-12 schools from making such content available to students.
- Some worry that the bill, if passed, would target books centered around gender, sexuality or race.
Tennessee House Republicans have filed a bill to pluck certain books considered “obscene” or “harmful to minors” from public school libraries, joining a growing number of states advancing legislation which aims to monitor what children are learning in school.
Under the bill, Tennessee law would be amended to bar any local education authority, including public charter schools, from making “obscene” content readily available to K-12 students in public school libraries.
Some say the bill targets books with LGBTQ+ characters or themes, which have been singled out by similar initiatives in other states. Others also worry that the bill will further sanitize in-school discourse surrounding race.
“There has been a growing effort to label content about race, sexuality, and gender in school libraries as obscene and remove it from the shelves,” Chris Sanders, the executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, wrote in a recent blog post.
“We will have to watch to see how the discussion unfolds about what counts as obscene. But if action around the country is any guide, LGBTQ materials are among the targets,” he wrote.
Tennessee lawmakers last year passed legislation to limit classroom discussion of systemic racism, or critical race theory. According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, many of the most challenged books of the year in 2020 centered on race.
In a statement to Chalkbeat on Friday, the Tennessee Association of School Librarians said it believes current school district board policies, when followed correctly, “adequately address concerns raised by parents or guardians about books,” reaffirming an earlier statement made by the group in October.
“Every book is not for every reader, but every child should have access to books they may want to read,” a portion of the October statement reads.
Current district policies allow external parties to flag to school officials textbooks or other materials considered objectionable.
The bill’s sponsors, state Rep. Scott Cepicky (R) and state Sen. Joey Hensley (R), did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In a speech on Friday, Tennessee state Rep. Vincent Dixie (D) said, when it comes to reforming public school education, some lawmakers need to shift their focus.
“Instead of fighting over which books can be in the library, let’s fight to provide every classroom with high-quality books and materials their students need to learn,” he said.
The new bill also poses an issue for its supporters because it is unclear which materials would fall under the category of “obscene.”
“Even the Supreme Court has had trouble defining what obscenity is and, if the Supreme Court struggles with this, then the school boards statewide will have even more trouble,” Mark Finchum, executive director of the Tennessee Council for the Social Studies, which represents social studies teachers across Tennessee, told Chalkbeat.
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