GOP leaders shy from librarian attacks in book scrutiny push

March 3, 2022 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — GOP legislative leaders on Thursday maintained that parents need more transparency on what students are being exposed to inside Tennessee’s public schools, but a handful conceded the arguments recently used to condemn teachers and libraries had crossed a line.

Just a day before, lawmakers and parents hurled insults against librarians in their push to advance legislation inside Tennessee’s GOP-dominant General Assembly that would ban “obscene” materials from school libraries. Notably, the bill would eliminate exempting schools from penalties if they posses obscene materials, potentially opening them up to costly lawsuits.

Many who testified before the legislative panel repeated unfounded claims that librarians who defended certain controversial literary works were helping “groom” children to become desensitized to sexual abuse and pornography. Librarians and other education advocates deny such claims, countering that policies are already in place to let parents review library materials.

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“To try to shore up your argument by just having a generic statement? Shame on them,” said Rep. Jeremy Faison, chairman of the Republican House Caucus. “If you have to prove your argument by attacking a group of people then your arguments are invalid.”

Senate Speaker Randy McNally also told reporters he was not comfortable with the comparisons.

“If the bill contains those comments or (it was) structured around those comments, I think it would have a very difficult time,” McNally said talking about the bill’s chances to survive the Senate.

The Republican leader pointed out that the Senate had already advanced legislation backed by Gov. Bill Lee, which would require school libraries to post their contents online and regularly review their policies to make sure the materials are “age-appropriate” and “suitable” for the children accessing them. Lee, also a Republican, touted the bill during his recent State of the State address to lawmakers.

However, House Majority Leader William Lamberth, a Republican from Portland, said the two different proposals work together and both should be passed during this legislative session.

“The goal is that everybody’s working together to make sure that our children are getting a good education and that they are getting that education through materials that are age-appropriate,” Lamberth said.

Book challenges and bans are on the rise in Tennessee and the U.S. as advocates call for more scrutiny over what ideas and concepts are taught to students, particularly around racism, sexuality and gender.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro, a Democrat from Nashville, said “it was embarrassing” to make any comparisons of school librarians to sexual predators.

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“It’s disgusting. It should be beneath us. It shouldn’t be who we are,” Yarbro said.

Tennessee recently attracted international attention when a rural school board in McMinn County voted unanimously to remove “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the district’s curriculum. Around the same time, the affluent Williamson County school board members agreed to remove “Walk Two Moons” — a book that depicts an American Indian girl’s search for her mother — after receiving complaints from parents.