Before the Republican-dominated Tennessee House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill giving officials more control over public school libraries, state Rep. Jerry Sexton introduced a last-minute amendment to give a politically appointed commission veto power over which books would be approved for students.
Democratic state representative John Ray Clemmons asked “what are you going to do?” with the books that are forbidden.
“Are you going to put them on the street? Set them on fire? Where are they going?” she asked on April 27.
“I have no idea,” replied Rep. Sexton, “but I would burn them.”
The moment sparked widespread backlash and magnified debate over the historic campaign to remove hundreds of titles from school libraries as part of a “parents’ rights” agenda dominating the GOP’s 2022 midterm campaigns.
Earlier this year, a rural school board in Tennessee’s McMinn County voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” from the district’s curriculum. Republican Gov. Bill Lee also signed a measure requiring school libraries to post their content online, subject to reviews to determine if it’s “age appropriate.”
The measures are among an unprecedented wave of legislation targeting US public schools backed by well-funded conservative groups and right-wing legal campaigns, including censorship of books, classroom debates and other teaching materials related to the racism, gender and politics, from restrictions directed at LGBT+ people. and events or how LGBT+ students and their families can be reflected in classrooms, to cover efforts limiting instruction on the impacts of slavery and the civil rights movements.
A recent report by the American Library Association found 729 attempts to remove school materials last year, leading to roughly 1,600 challenges and book removals, the highest number since the group began tracking the efforts two decades ago. Similar efforts in 2022 are likely to be even greater.
A PEN America report found that more than 1,100 titles were banned or investigated in 86 school districts in 26 states from July 2021 to March 2022, affecting more than 2 million students.
“These groups sought to remove books from public and school library shelves that share the stories of queer, trans, black, indigenous people, people of color, immigrants, and refugees,” according to the American Library Association report. “But we know that banning books will not make these realities and lived experiences go away, nor will it erase our nation’s struggles to achieve true equity, diversity and inclusion.”
Legislators and book censorship advocates have accused schools of “indoctrinating” students about racism or “grooming” students, amplifying anti-gay rhetoric used as a weapon against LGBT+ people, often in in conjunction with other laws targeting schools on “critical race theory” and issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
“There is a growing trend to label material in schools as ‘obscene,’ ‘pornographic,’ and corresponding pressure from politicians, parents, and administrators alike to use these labels as justification for rapid book thefts, as well as to circumvent normal rules. reconsideration processes”, according to PEN America. “This is despite the fact that the books swept up in these bans appear to have no knowable legal meaning of these terms.”
Opponents have often likened Republican-backed efforts to censor or ban schoolbooks to authoritarian regimes, evoking images of Nazi Germany’s 1933 genocidal campaigns that destroyed tens of thousands of books deemed politically subversive and “un-German.” , which makes it even more surprising that an elected official in the United States invoked the literal image of book burning.
President Joe Biden condemned politically motivated attempts to attack schools and teachers during a White House event to recognize teachers on Wednesday.
“There are too many politicians trying to score political points by trying to ban books, even math books,” he said, referring to the Florida Board of Education’s rejection of math textbooks that state officials claim contain “critical theory of the race”.
“Did you ever think that when you’d be teaching you’d worry about book burnings and book banning because it doesn’t fit someone’s political agenda?” the president said.
Tennessee House Bill 2666, which passed the state Senate earlier this month, charged a state textbook commission to issue guidance to schools when reviewing materials to ensure they are ” appropriate to the age and maturity levels” of the students.
The addition of a controversial amendment that would require the commission to issue a list of “approved” materials for schools sparked widespread backlash. That amendment was withdrawn.
But Rep. Sexton introduced another amendment that would require the commission to review the contents of every public school library in the state and give it the authority to reject them outright.
The full House version of the measure passed with a vote of 66-26. State lawmakers must now iron out the changes to the House measure and the companion Senate bill before the legislature adjourns in the next few days.
“History hasn’t looked kindly on those who banned books or those who burned books,” said Tennessee State Representative Gloria Johnson. said during the debate on April 27. “I’m not sure that’s who we want to be included with.”
Rep. Sexton later added that “we’re not banning books, we’re just removing them from the library.”