Tennessee law takes another step toward censoring books in schools
Many state legislatures have bills that focus on censoring books within schools. Tennessee is one of them.
Senate Bill 1059 – signed by Tennessee’s Gov. Bill Lee in late April – puts book distributors and publishers at risk for criminal prosecution if they provide written materials to Tennessee’s schools if the material is deemed obscene. The law will go into effect on July 1.
Library proponents have criticized the bill, alongside dozens of others nationwide. It’s one of 119 bills being considered in state legislatures that focus on limiting children’s access to written materials, including in Kentucky, Texas, Louisiana and Maine.
John Chrastka is the founder and executive director of EveryLibrary – a political action group that advocates on behalf of libraries nationwide. He said bills like SB 1059 are a “solution in search of a problem.”
“The effect of this bill is certainly a chilling effect both on the publishing community, in terms of their decisions about what to publish, as well as for the education community in the school libraries about what to collect, because of the nature that bill is reach and some of the definitions in it are less than clear,” Chrastka said.
Book vendors who violate the law could be charged with a Class E felony. Meaning that someone found guilty of providing obscene materials could face one to six years in prison, and a minimum $10,000 fine.
Tennessee defines “obscene” as if the average person finds the material to be “patently offensive” in sexual conduct, “appeals to the prurient interest;” or that it overall lacks literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Tennessee’s District Attorney’s will decide if the material meets the state’s definition of obscene.
Jonathan Friedman is the Director of Free Expression and Education Programs of PEN America – a group that defends intellectual freedom in the U.S. and tracks efforts to challenge and ban books. In an April release, Friedman connected the bill with the recent wave of challenges to books having to do with LGBTQ lifestyles.
“Regardless of what the supporters of this law say, it serves little purpose other than to intimidate and chill the publishing industry,” he said. “As we have been seeing across the country, this proposed law is another attempt to weaponize government power to legislate book banning through threats and fear.”
The Tennessee Lookout reports this law is the only law focused on public school children’s access to books that advanced through the Tennessee Legislature this year.
Chrastka said this bill not only affects books vendors, but the citizens of Tennessee as a whole. He also called the bill an attack on the state’s public education system and its libraries, saying this recent trend of bills is a part “war” against gay and transgender individuals.
“A bill like this is part of the wholecloth approach in Tennessee to limit the right to read, to curb the ability of individuals and families to make their own choices,” he said. “These kinds of bills are intended to criminalize and by criminalizing a book, you’re attempting to criminalize a whole group of people or individuals or their stories.”