NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee House on Monday passed a bill that lets school boards deem books “obscene" and threatens to withhold education funding and slap school librarians with criminal penalties if orders to remove them aren't followed.
The House's 63-24 vote shifts action in the Republican-supermajority Legislature to the Senate, where the bill's fate is less certain after multiple delays in a committee.
The bill would amend an exception under state law that does not put people with a scientific, educational, governmental or other similar justification at risk of criminal charges for knowingly distributing obscene material to a minor. The bill would only remove the exception for public K-12 schools, their workers and their contractors.
If someone disobeys the school board's directive to remove a book, they could face a class A misdemeanor, or a class E felony if someone repeatedly doesn't comply.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Scott Cepicky, contended that the bill aims “to protect our librarians and prevent the arbitrary removal of a book from a school library” by spelling out one process to remove books.
The bill lets parents of students report to school officials about material in a school library they consider obscene or harmful to minors, both as defined in state law. The leader of that school must then remove that material from the library for at least 30 days to allow the school board to review.
Afterward, the school board would then decide to remove the material permanently or return it to school libraries.
If school officials don't comply with the process, then the Tennessee education commissioner can temporarily withhold state funding.
Book challenges and bans are on the rise in Tennessee and the U.S. as advocates call for more scrutiny over what ideas and concepts are taught to students, particularly around racism, sexuality and gender.
Republicans have brought multiple bills on the topic. Earlier this month, lawmakers and parents hurled insults against librarians in discussion of one proposal.
Many who testified before the legislative panel repeated unfounded claims that librarians who defended certain controversial literary works were helping “groom” children to become desensitized to sexual abuse and pornography. Librarians and other education advocates deny such claims, countering that policies are already in place to let parents review library materials.
A handful of Republican lawmakers conceded the arguments recently used to condemn teachers and libraries had crossed a line.
On Monday, Rep. Eddie Mannis, Tennessee's only openly gay Republican state lawmaker, opposed the bill, echoing concerns voiced by many Democrats. He noted existing shortages of teachers and said he doesn't want to pass laws that tell them “we don't trust you."
“I'm just concerned that this legislation could be used to subjectively eliminate education materials that people misjudge to be harmful or offensive strictly due to their own personal prejudice or bias,” the Knoxville lawmaker said.
Senate Speaker Randy McNally was among the Republicans who said they are not comfortable with the comparisons of teachers and librarians.
McNally has pointed to action already take on legislation backed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, which would require school libraries to post their contents online and regularly review their policies to make sure the materials are “age-appropriate” and “suitable” for the children accessing them. Lawmakers have already passed and Lee has already signed that bill.
Tennessee recently attracted international attention when a rural school board in McMinn County voted unanimously to remove “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the district’s curriculum. Around the same time, the affluent Williamson County school board members agreed to remove “Walk Two Moons” — a book that depicts an American Indian girl’s search for her mother — after receiving complaints from parents.