Tennessee recently passed a bill that would criminalize book publishers for sending “obscene” material to school libraries.
On April 17, the Tennessee House passed House Bill 0841 and Senate Bill 1059, which would make it illegal for “a book publisher, distributor or seller to knowingly sell or distribute obscene matter to a public school serving any of the grades K-12.” The punishment for distributing this “obscene matter” is one to six years of imprisonment and a fine of USD $3,000, with additional fines ranging between $10,000 to $100,000.
When presenting the bill to the legislature, Republican Rep. Susan Lynn claimed that book distributors often send school libraries free books containing “obscene” content. Lynn did not provide specific examples of what could constitute “obscene matter,” but claimed it was already defined in Tennessee law. However, others have claimed that this definition remains vague.
Erika Long of the Tennessee Library Association said that the definition of “obscene” is controversial, but from a legal standpoint, can be used for material considered pornographic.
“The truth of the matter is [pornography] doesn’t exist in children’s literature or young adult literature,” she tells Xtra. “What people who are challenging books get upset about are some of the day-to-day things that happen, whether it’s in how your body matures, or how you might begin to start identifying or understanding who you are yourself, or even beginning to date and have relationships.”
Previously, possessing so-called “obscene” material on school grounds was acceptable if there was an educational purpose behind it, but the recent bill removed this provision.
“This trend this legislative session to look at the obscenity law as a cudgel or a weaponized way to move a social agenda hasn’t happened in living memory,” says John Chrastka, founder of EveryLibrary, a national political action committee for libraries, in an interview with Xtra. “The way [the bill] was amended and finally adopted is pretty much a political statement.”
Although a majority of representatives voted to pass the bill, several Democratic representatives spoke in opposition.
“We’re banning books, but we won’t ban the threat to our youth when it comes to militarized guns,” said Nashville Rep. Justin Jones, who dubbed the bill “book murder caucus proposal.” He added, “You’re saying you trust teachers with guns, but not picking out the books in their curriculum?”
Additionally, Memphis Rep. Justin Pearson brought up the concern that publishers sending books to Tennessee schools may not be aware of this new law that could criminalize them. There is currently no plan to ensure that the government communicates this information to them, or provides specific examples of books that could pose issues. Rep. Gloria Johnson argued that “the last thing we want to do is prevent organizations from sending more books to our schools.”
This new legislation may not stop in Tennessee. A bill has already been proposed on the federal level to “prohibit a publishing house from knowingly furnishing sexually explicit material to a school or an educational agency,” and punish offending schools by withdrawing federal funding. Other bills are under review in Maine, Texas and Oklahoma which similarly target publishers. Chrastka notes that legislation targeting books is often introduced in conjunction with legislation targeting trans people or restricting reproductive rights.
“It is interesting to me how comprehensive the agenda is on the part of these groups and how difficult it is to oppose this multifaceted attack,” he says.
“We are seeing legislation like this that targets books and the profession introduced and passed in states that are also doing very negative things—the anti-trans bills, going after reproductive rights.”
While the legislation may be unclear about what could be considered obscene, library advocates are concerned that these bills will disproportionately target books by and about marginalized groups. In 2022, the American Library Association reported a record 1,269 attempts to ban books across the United States, which is a steep increase from 729 attempts in 2021. Most books featured on the American Library Association’s list of “Most Challenged Books of 2022” are being banned due to “LGBTQIA+ content,” as well as for reasons such as “EDI [Equity, Diversity and Inclusion] content” and “providing sexual education.”
“What we’re seeing … is that topics around sex and gender are being named as being obscene, even if they are not describing sexual activity and are simply describing non-heteronormative, non-cisgender, non-committed couples,” says Chrastka.
“LGBTQ2S+ literature and its writers have the ability to normalize, validate and celebrate LGBTQ2S+ lives and can help reduce bullying,” she explains. “Book banning has long-lasting and damaging [impacts] on LGBTQ2S+ students because their voices are not heard and they don’t see themselves in the books they read.”
However, Long remains optimistic that librarians and publishers will continue to work together to provide books for their learners.
“One of the things that people probably don’t realize is that the relationship between publishers and librarians, whether it’s school or public, [are] really strong relationships,” she explains. “We’re going to always provide books that are relevant to students [and] to the world around them that also meet the needs of the curriculum.”
She encourages people to make themselves aware of what’s happening and pressure their representatives to oppose these bills, arguing that the proponents of book banning are only a vocal minority.
“We as a large group just have to keep making our voices heard, and getting a little bit louder than the small group of people,” she says.