By JONATHAN MATTISE, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) – The Tennessee House on Monday passed a bill that allows school principals to view “obscene” books and threatens to withhold education funding and impose criminal penalties on school librarians if they do not follow instructions to remove them.
The 63-24 House of Representatives vote passes the action in the Republican-majority legislature to the Senate, where the fate of the bill is less certain after multiple delays in the committee.
The bill would amend an exception under state law that does not put people with scientific, educational, governmental or other similar justification at risk for criminal charges for knowingly distributing obscene material to a minor. The bill would remove the exception only for K-12 public schools, their employees and their contractors.
If someone does not obey the school board’s instruction to remove a book, he or she may face a first-grade offense, or a serious E-grade offense if someone repeatedly disobeys.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Scott Chapiki, argued that the bill was intended to “protect our librarians and prevent the arbitrary removal of a book from a school library” by detailing one book removal process.
The bill allows parents of students to report to school officials material in the school library that they consider obscene or harmful to minors, both as defined by state law. The leader of that school must then remove the material from the library for at least 30 days to allow the school board to review.
The school board will then decide to remove the material permanently or return it to the school libraries.
If school officials disobey the process, the Tennessee Education Commissioner could temporarily delay state funding.
The challenges and bans on the books are on the rise in Tennessee and the U.S., as supporters call for further scrutiny of the ideas and concepts taught to students, especially regarding racism, sexuality and gender.
Republicans have brought many bills on the subject. Earlier this month, lawmakers and parents hurled insults at librarians in a debate over a single proposal.
Many who testified before the Legislative Panel reiterated unfounded claims that librarians who defended controversial literary works helped children “groom” into insensitivity to sexual abuse and pornography. Librarians and other education advocates deny such claims, and oppose the existence of a policy that allows parents to review library materials.
A handful of Republican lawmakers have admitted that the arguments recently used to condemn teachers and libraries have crossed a line.
On Monday, MP Eddie Manis, the only gay-open lawmaker in the Republican state of Tennessee, opposed the bill, echoing the concerns voiced by many Democrats. He noted the current shortage of teachers and said he did not want to pass laws telling them “we do not trust you”.
“I’m just worried that this legislation might be used to subjectively eliminate educational materials that people mistakenly see as harmful or offensive solely because of their prejudices or personal bias,” the Knoxville legislature said.
Senate Speaker Randy McNally was among Republicans who said they were uncomfortable with comparisons between teachers and librarians.
McNally has pointed to actions already being taken in legislation backed by Republican Gov. Bill Lee that would require school libraries to publish their content online and regularly review their policies to make sure the materials are “age-appropriate” and “appropriate” for children to access. The legislators have already passed and Lee has already signed this bill.
Tennessee recently attracted international attention when a Makmin County School Board unanimously voted to remove “Mouse,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the county’s curriculum. At about the same time, Williamson County affluent school board members agreed to remove “Walk Two Moons” – a book describing an American Indian girl’s search for her mother – after receiving complaints from parents.
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