Public librarians should have the ability and editorial discretion to select books for libraries without the censorial hand of members of the community looking over their shoulders and making decisions about content.
However, a bill introduced in the Tennessee Senate would give parents such censorial ability over public librarians. The ill-conceived measure, SB 2896, is called “the Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act.”
The measure would require public libraries to establish “a parental library review board” that would consist of five adult residents in the public library’s geographic area. The measure then empowers the board to “determine whether any sexual material provided to the public by the public library is age-inappropriate sexual material.”
The measure also would allow the board to “order any material deemed to be age-inappropriate sexual material to be removed from public access by minors at the public library.”
The bill defines “age-inappropriate sexual material” as material that:
Taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest of minors;
Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community with respect to what is appropriate material for minors;
Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.
This provision takes much of the language from the Supreme Court’s test for obscenity in Miller v California (1973), but applies it to minors. It is similar to what is often called a “harmful to minors” or “variable obscenity” standard.
But unlike obscenity or even harmful-to-minors laws, this measure is much worse. It essentially bans material because it is “inappropriate” or “not appropriate.” Talk about a vague and ill-defined standard.
Then comes the most draconian provision of the ill-thought-out bill: “Any public library personnel who intentionally fails to perform any duty imposed on a public library under this section, or who intentionally violates this section, commits a Class A misdemeanor subject to a fine of not more than five hundred dollars ($500) or term of imprisonment or both.”
Reflect on this Orwellian nightmare. A public librarian could go to jail because puritanical members of a parental oversight board think that certain books are inappropriate.
This measure should never see the light of day and certainly should never become law in Tennessee or anywhere in the free world.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a First Amendment Fellow at the Freedom Forum Institute, and a law professor at Belmont University who publishes widely on First Amendment topics. He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment titled, “Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment” (Now You Know Media, 2018). He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including “The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and “Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded” (ABC-CLIO, 2017).