Tennessee Becomes Next State Seeking Public Library Oversight, Censorship

Following in the footsteps of Republican lawmakers in Missouri, a pair of bills aimed at public libraries are making their way through both the House and the Senate of Tennessee. Senate Bill 2896, sponsored by Senator Paul Bailey (R-Sparta), and House Bill 2721, sponsored by Representative Andy Holt (R-Dresden) seek to create parental oversight boards for public libraries. Those boards, one for each library, would make final determinations on whether or not sexual materials are age-appropriate.

The boards would be made of five individuals, each appointed by the county for two-year terms. Members would be elected by local government officials, though onus falls upon library boards to notify their communities of said election.

In other words, the parental oversight board would be appointed by local government, not anyone related to the library, though it’s the library’s responsibility to notify their patronage of said election.

Determination of sexual content inappropriate for minors is, according to the House Bill: “any description or representation, in any form, of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse, that: (A) Taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest of minors; (B) Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to what is appropriate material for minors; and (C) Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”

When material is brought to the board for determination of appropriateness, “[T]he board shall convene public hearings at which members of the community may present concerns to the board. After receiving comments from the public, the board shall examine individual instances of the questioned sexual material to determine whether it is age-inappropriate sexual material under this section.”

Once a hearing convenes, the board can choose to remote the material, and their decision is final. It’s not subject to review from any library governing body, the state itself, or any division within the state government.

Like the bill in Missouri, librarians would be subject to misdemeanor violations and fines in instances where they do not comply with board decisions. The state can also revoke funding for libraries not found in compliance.

Many believe this bill specifically targets Drag Queen Storytime events at libraries, though according to quotes from Representative Bailey for the Herald-Citizen, the decision to bring simultaneous bills came from concerns “to certain groups using public buildings for things that some may find age inappropriate.” He admits it “could” mean Drag Queen Storytime or other groups. A Drag Queen Storytime in 2019 in Putnam County, Tennessee, drew protests and criticism, and bills like these would empower communities to disallow such events. The Putnam County event did not violate any of the library’s policies, and the event itself was not sponsored by the library.

Vague language at this stage would allow for parental oversight of not just events, but also books available in public libraries. What that board determines as inappropriate would be moved or removed, and librarians would bear the brunt of legal repercussions for not uniformly following that directive.

Representative Bailey, cited by the Herald-Citizen, admits that the bills themselves need amendments in order to prevent potential discrimination lawsuits, as well as to clarify the materials subject to oversight so that “it does what we intend for it to do.” He claims that material currently in libraries would not be subject to board review.

The bills would ensure that public buildings throughout the state would still be accessible to all, but that public libraries specifically would have “oversight” related to age-appropriate events.

For advocates of small-government, these bills sponsored and backed by Republican state politicians—both in Missouri and in Tennessee—counter that narrative. They seek to remove the power of librarians from providing materials, including not just those for lending, but also events, speakers, and programming, for their entire communities. Instead, inalterable decisions would be made by an unrelated body of those without the training, education, or knowledge of the whole of their communities, undermining the purpose of a public library all together.

These bills directly discriminate against minority communities, and in particular LGBTQ+ people. By not having access to programs that celebrate and educate about their histories and their futures, and equally encouraging enjoyment, fun, and play, they’re pushed further into the shadows due to fear and bigotry of the most vocal.

Likewise, bills like these aren’t about protecting a community. They’re about power, and that power begins with how straight white men in positions of power can further assert their authority, whether or not it truly is a matter of community need. Bailey and Holt will both receive press for this, further bolstering their names in the public spotlight.

What You Can Do

  • If you’re in Tennessee, contact both your House and Senate representatives. The Tennessee Library Association also provides a one-stop, easy-to-use form to add your disproval of the bill.
  • If Bailey or Holt are your representative, reach out to them about your disapproval of public library censorship at the hands of community members.
  • Keep tabs on the updates coming from the Tennessee Library Association and share your support of their work to monitor and oppose this bill.
  • Tennessee residents are urged to contact their local press about this bill and explain why it would tear apart the right to access to information. Work with local government journalists and emphasize the work public libraries do in protecting that freedom. This is a First Amendment violation.
  • Whether you’re in Tennessee or not, reach out to organizations that work on behalf of libraries and library legislation and encourage them to speak up and out about this bill, as well as the potential for similar bills to appear in other states. This isn’t the first and won’t be the last, as evidenced by Missouri’s similar bill. Because this is an issue tied to funding of libraries, EveryLibrary would be a great organization to contact, as would be the American Library Association. It’s likely, too, that the National Coalition Against Censorship might be interested in this bill and its implications for freedom of information.
  • Reach out to PEN America and to the American Civil Liberties Union.

As of this writing, there’s been very little uproar about this bill or the implications of it. Start writing and shouting.

Here’s what happened in the wake of Missouri’s bill. Rise up and ensure that similar actions are taken in Tennessee, as well as in the inevitable wave of additional states attempting to push such legislation through and outside of the public’s watchful eye.

Your effort, as explained by EveryLibrary, is not wasted.