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Tennessee’s Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act Would Censor Books, Jail Librarians

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The Tennessee state legislature should reject a new legislative proposal, the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, as an unwarranted, un-American, and unconstitutional intrusion into children’s right to read, PEN America said today.

Tennessee state legislators have recently proposed The Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, which would create local discretionary boards around the state which would have the power to remove books from local libraries if deemed to contain “age-inappropriate sexual material.”

The Act would create a five-person elected “Parental Oversight Board” for each public library around the state. These Boards would have the power to determine which library materials contain age-inappropriate sexual material, and they would have the discretion to mandate that such materials be removed from access by minors. The bill’s broad reference to “sexual material” appears to include books in the library and events held by the library, allowing the Oversight Boards not only to mandate which books would be allowed within a library’s general circulation but also to control libraries’ public programming.

Tennessee’s proposed legislation appears to be essentially identical to Missouri House Bill 2044, also known as the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act, which was proposed in Missouri earlier this year. PEN America, along with various other free speech and library groups, have forcefully come out against that Act.

“Tennessee legislators have copied-and-pasted a bill that would formalize state-level censorship,” said James Tager, Deputy Director of Free Expression Research and Policy at PEN America. “This bill would empower a small group of people to act as morality police for entire communities and would punish libraries and librarians who act to safeguard the fundamental right to read. If this bill passes in Tennessee, we may expect to see additional copycat bills in states across the country. It is urgent that everyone concerned with our right to read speak out about this bill, right now.”

Under the Tennessee version, librarians who refuse to comply with the Act can be criminally charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which can result in up to a year-minus-a-day in prison (other examples of Class A misdemeanors in Tennessee reportedly include assault, domestic assault, and driving under the influence). Public libraries who fail to uphold the Act would also have their state funding cut.

“Public librarians around the country are often put in the uncomfortable position of standing up for free speech in their own institutions, and refusing to take down a book simply become some members of the community object. Apparently the sponsors of this Act feel that this should be treated as criminal conduct when it’s actually librarians simply doing their jobs,” Tager added.

Children’s and young adult books featuring LGBTIQA+ characters and issues are disproportionately likely to be the target of attempted censorship in America’s libraries and schools, frequently making the American Library Association’s Top 10 Most Challenged Books List. The National Coalition Against Censorship, of which PEN America is a member, has concluded that “[R]eading stories that acknowledge [LGBTQ] experiences, in which they can recognize themselves and their families, reinforces their sense of self-worth and helps them overcome feelings of social marginalization.”

PEN America, an organization of writers and readers formed in 1922, has fought against book bans for almost 100 years. PEN America is a member organization of the National Coalition Against Censorship and is also affiliated with Banned Books Week, the yearly campaign to highlight the phenomenon of banned books and to push back against censorship in U.S. schools, libraries, and other spaces.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Gina Chung, Communications Manager, [email protected], +1 201 952 6484

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