Tennessee: “Age-Appropriate” School Library Bill Makes Way To Governor’s Office

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A school library law is being sent to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk in Tennessee, with the goal of inspecting library books for “age appropriateness.”

Following the Senate’s rapid ratification of the legislation last month, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives voted 73-21 Monday night to support the Republican governor’s proposal.

The bill would mandate that each public school library publish a list of the items in its collection and evaluate it on a regular basis to ensure that they are “appropriate for the age and maturity levels of the students who may access the materials.”

A separate school library measure, which could make librarians criminals if “obscene” material is discovered in a school’s collection, might be considered in House and Senate education committees on Wednesday.

The examination comes amid a countrywide uptick in book challenges and bans, as well as limitations against teaching about systematic racism in both school curriculum and libraries.

The decision by the McMinn County school board to remove “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel on the Holocaust, from the curriculum in January gained international notice. Last year, Tennessee became one of the first states to pass legislation forbidding K-12 instructors from addressing some “divisive concepts,” such as race and gender.

The Age-Appropriate Materials Act of 2022, as proposed by Lee, attempts to standardize school library practices by requiring periodic evaluations starting this fall. It would be up to each district to establish what is considered age-appropriate in their community.

School boards must also develop procedures for gathering public comments and deleting books that do not meet that criteria, according to the legislation.

Although most school libraries in Tennessee have internet search capabilities where parents and others may check up its material, some libraries do not, particularly in smaller districts where each school does not have a dedicated librarian. All districts have procedures in place to examine book challenges.

Democrats said that the bill’s provisions would circumvent librarians’ expertise and overburden school boards with book problems. They warned of the possibility of costly litigation over First Amendment rights to information access.

“Somehow we’ve made it from the days of Andrew Jackson until now without this new administrative regime that you’re setting up in every school district in the state,” said Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, a Democrat from Nashville, said age-appropriacy is a subjective decision that might result in unequal access to resources across districts or even within a single school.

“I’m truly concerned about limiting the information and access to knowledge and resources for our children to get a full and appropriate education in our schools. This seems overly vague,” Clemmons said.

However, the governor’s plan, as presented by Rep. Scott Cepicky, attempts to establish a review mechanism rather than outright ban books.

“I have total faith in our local school boards and the people that support them to make sure this process will be put together seamlessly,” said Cepicky, a Republican from Culleoka.

Cepicky and Sen. Joey Hensley of Hohenwald co-sponsored the other school library measure, which would prevent any library from making “obscene materials or anything injurious to minors” available to pupils in school libraries. Although the state’s professional association for school librarians claims no obscene items are in their collections, some parents and school administrators have claimed that this is an issue in Tennessee.

The bill, which has been the subject of heated debate in House criminal justice committees in recent weeks, would also eliminate the exception that presently protects librarians and other school staff from being prosecuted with a crime for having such materials in their libraries. It would also force school administrators to remove any challenged material for at least 30 days until a decision could be made by the local school board or charter school governing body.

The Tennessee Association of School Librarians’ president, Katie Capshaw, said her group spoke with the governor’s office multiple times and believes Lee’s approach is preferable to the Cepicky-Hensley measure. The governor’s measure is “ideal for allowing each professional, qualified school librarian to build and maintain a collection that is suitable for their school community while also providing parents a voice in their child’s education,” she said in a statement Monday night.