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Tennessee librarians, school boards could face criminal penalties if 'obscene' books wind up in schools

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One of the latest proposals in a slew of bills limiting what can be taught, read and discussed in public schools would slap librarians and school boards with criminal penalties.

An obvious theme has emerged during the Tennessee legislative session. A slew of bills are being introduced that limit what can be taught, read and discussed in public schools. One of the latest proposals under consideration would slap librarians and school boards with criminal penalties.

Legislation co-sponsored by more than 40 House Republicans would charge public school officials who make obscene material available to students with a misdemeanor. But who gets to decide what is obscene?

Victoria Jackson lives in Middle Tennessee. The former Saturday Night Live performer showed up to a hearing at Tennessee’s Capitol.

“Things an 11-year-old can read at their library, The Lovely Bones,” Jackson said, quoting from the novel about a 14-year-old girl who is sexually assaulted and murdered. “‘Mr. Harvey I really have to get home.’ ‘Take off your clothes.’ ‘What?’ ‘Take your clothes off,’ Mr. Harvey said. ‘I want to check that you’re still a virgin.’ ‘I am, Mr. Harvey.'”

The bill’s stated goal is to hold librarians and school boards accountable for books that could contain sexuality, nudity or excessive violence. Dale Walker, president of the Tennessee Pastors Network, is one of many conservative activists leading these challenges.

“This very material that is given to our kids in school libraries in the state of Tennessee is considered contraband in our state prisons,” Walker said.

This bill is just the latest in a series of policies crafted by conservatives on what’s taught in schools. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, D-Nashville, says he’s worried about the direction that bills like this are taking the state’s education system.

“I mean, it’s open season on librarians,” said Yarbro.

Sharon Edwards, president of the Tennessee Library Association, argues there are already procedures in place to vet books.

“Parents already have a right to examine curriculum and request alternative instruction,” Edwards said. “School districts already have processes and policies in place for book challenges and removals, and school libraries already have their catalogs online.”

Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, says he believes it’s all for show.

“We have done nothing but help some of our colleagues further their political aspirations because it’s election season,” Dixie said. “That’s basically what we’re doing. We’re still in the fallout of an election season because people want to get soundbites.”

Bills that would limit what books are allowed in schools have divided legislators in the majority party. This week, Republican leadership say they’re trying to give parents a say in their kid’s classrooms. And it doesn’t hurt that it could be a winning message in elections this fall.