Tennessee Republicans advanced legislation on Wednesday that would increase oversight of what books are placed in public school libraries, just hours after the bill’s sponsor in the House said any inappropriate book should be burned.
The bill is one of several proposed in Tennessee this year to increase oversight and transparency in public school libraries in the wake of a national uptick in book challenges and bans. Republican lawmakers have slammed school librarians for their lack of oversight over materials provided to children, particularly those that deal with racism and LGBTQ issues.
Rep. Jerry Sexton of Bean Station, a Republican, introduced a last-minute amendment to a school bill this week that would give the state’s textbook commission, which is made up of politically appointed members, veto power over what books are placed on school library shelves. Schools would be required to submit a list of their library materials to the commission.
Nashville Democratic Rep. John Ray Clemmons asked Sexton what he would do if books were deemed inappropriate.
“Are you going to throw them out on the street?” Is it possible to set them on fire? “Where do they intend to go?” Clemmons had inquired.
On the House floor, Sexton said, “I have no idea, but I would burn them.” Later, he clarified his remarks on the floor, stating that he was not a member of the textbook commission and that he did not believe that any books would be burned.
Earlier this year, during a legislative hearing that included testimony from some who claimed, without evidence, that educators were attempting to “groom” children with sexually explicit materials found in libraries, Sexton slammed librarians.
“I don’t appreciate what’s going on in our libraries, what’s being put in front of our children,” Sexton said at the time. “Shame on you for putting it there.”
The legislation aimed at libraries, according to Knoxville Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson, is taking “Tennessee in a dangerous direction.”
Throughout the debate, librarians have argued that schools already have policies in place that allow parents and educators to review school library books. They emphasize the need for more resources, as well as the possibility of appointing a state library coordinator to promote literacy and education across the state, as proposed by the General Assembly this year.
The bill was approved by a Republican-supermajority House on a 66-26 vote, but time is running out in the 2022 legislative session. The Republican-controlled Senate has introduced a separate bill that would simply direct the textbook commission to provide school libraries with library guidance.
After a rural school board in McMinn County unanimously voted to remove “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the curriculum, Tennessee was thrust into the national spotlight. Meanwhile, after parents complained, school board members in Williamson County, an affluent region just south of Nashville, agreed to remove “Walk Two Moons,” a book about an American Indian girl’s search for her mother.
Gov. Bill Lee, a Republican, has fueled the debate by focusing on school libraries in a speech earlier this year and introducing his own bill to ensure students consume “age appropriate” content. The bill, which Lee has since signed into law, mandates that school libraries post their materials online and review their policies on a regular basis to ensure that the materials are “age-appropriate” and “suitable” for the children who use them.