Has the 111th General Assembly Gone Nuts?

Just when you think things can’t get any crazier in the Tennessee General Assembly, members of that august body will up and surprise you again.

There’s discussion over the “tampon tax” that I wrote about in last week’s column. There’s a joint house resolution declaring CNN and The Washington Post “fake news and part of the media wing of the Democratic Party.” Proposals to do away with handgun permits. Proposals to do away with licensing for more than 25 occupations ranging from architects to funeral directors to real estate brokers to cosmetologists.

Absurd ideas, all of them. But the bill that’s fascinated and enraged me most is entitled “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act.” It was proposed in the House of Representatives (HB 2721) by Andy Holt (R-Dresden) and in the Senate (SB2896) by our own Paul Bailey (R-Sparta). The bill aims to create five-member parental oversight boards at all public libraries in Tennessee. These boards would be appointed to two-year terms by the county legislative body and would decide whether material that could be deemed sexual in nature is age appropriate. If the board agrees that the material “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value” for minors, it would be removed from the library. The board’s decision is final. There is no avenue for appeal.

Equally outrageous is the section of the bill stating that library personnel who intentionally fail to comply are subject to fines and imprisonment.

This bill would be laughable if it weren’t so terrifying. Having written countless newspaper columns about efforts to ban books in our public libraries and schools, I’m well aware that there are plenty of people out there who want to control what other people’s children read, listen to and look at. The morality police steal or hide books they don’t like. They rip “offensive” pages out of them. They do silly things like draw underpants on the naked toddler who’s the star of Maurice Sendak’s 1970 classic “In the Night Kitchen.”

In times past, these censors have had no real power over the materials or programs public libraries choose to offer their patrons. Professional librarians have always made those decisions, bearing in mind that the communities they serve are made up of people with diverse backgrounds, interests and attitudes. Public libraries are governed by boards that have policies in place regarding challenges to objectionable materials.

Why do Representative Holt and Senator Bailey want to remove those responsibilities from those who are qualified to perform them?

It’s been suggested that what’s really driving their efforts are Drag Queen story hours that have recently been held at some public libraries, including the Putnam County Library. Never mind that those story hours were neither sponsored nor endorsed by our library. Any group—be it made up of chess players or genealogy enthusiasts or, yes, even drag queens–that meets the requirements for reserving a library meeting room is entitled to do so. That’s as it should be. No “parental oversight board” should have the power to control who meets at a public library.

Here’s an idea, and it’s not a radical one. Let librarians and library boards run the libraries. Parents who don’t want their children to read certain books or watch certain videos or attend certain programs can say no to their own children. But they have no right to decide what other people’s children read or watch or listen to. The Parental Oversite of Public Libraries Act is government overreach and state-sponsored censorship, pure and simple. It must be defeated.

I’ve called Senator Bailey several times over the past several days but have talked only to his answering machine. If you’d like to call, too, his number is (615) 741-3978. You can reach Representative Holt at (615) 741-7847.

(March 8, 2020)