Banned Together: How Book Censorship Is Affecting Tennessee (2024)

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“Fight evil, read books!”

On April 13, dozens of people chanted this phrase as they marched in downtown Nashville. The inaugural March for Libraries — capping off National Library Week by celebrating libraries and protesting book censorship — was established by Cassandra Taylor, chair of the Tennessee Library Association’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.

In recent years, libraries throughout the country have been caught in the crossfire of a raging culture war and attempts to diminish the identities of marginalized people by removing access to books by and about them. Tennessee is at the national forefront of book challenges and book bannings; while the former describes the process in which someone requests that a book be restricted or removed from school curricula, school libraries or public libraries (which may or may not ultimately happen), the latter indicates the process was successful.

The March for Libraries was a declaration of love addressed to libraries, the people who work in them and the people they serve. Attendees held signs featuring phrases like “libraries are for everyone” and “free people read freely.” Attendees also wrote anecdotes on library cards and read aloud passages from banned books.

As participants marched through Nashville’s streets, one person zipped by on a scooter and yelled, “f*ck you!”

Many book challenges are driven by claims that educators and librarians are trying to “indoctrinate” children by providing access to texts that depict violence, sexual themes or difficult truths about history. Librarians in Tennessee have been threatened and compared to pedophiles, facing claims from far-right activists that they distribute obscene materials in libraries. (They don’t.)

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Clinton Public Library director Miria Webb traveled hours to attend the event. She has worked in the library system near Oak Ridge, Tenn., for a decade, and has been a librarian for nearly two. Dressed in a Reading Rainbow shirt, earrings featuring animals reading books and glasses depicting Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie, she expresses affection for her hometown library system and its patrons. She also admits she, like many other librarians, has struggled since book challenges started ramping up in 2022. Webb has considered leaving the profession as people make accusations that she says are “utterly untrue.”

“I have had people imply that I am the devil,” said Webb. “I’ve had people write me emails that compared queer people to cannibals. … I’ve been threatened with arrest by a former police officer at least twice.”

While no books have been removed from the Clinton Public Library system, contentious library board meetings have brought national attention to the East Tennessee town. Librarians have had to pull two titles from the adult section and put them behind the front desk: Gender Queer and Let’s Talk About it.

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Hendersonville senior Julia Garnett also attended the April 13 march. Garnett has received national recognition from the White House for her advocacy around censorship. The school board in her home county considered a book challenge for A Place Inside of Me, a children’s book about a Black boy’s emotions before and after a police shooting. It was not removed from school libraries. In a separate incident, former Hendersonville Public Library director Allan Morales was fired after an incident involving Christian actor Kirk Cameron and anti-trans activist Riley Gaines. Morales was ousted by a newly designated library board put in place by a county commissioner who is a member of the ultra-conservative Sumner County Constitutional Republicans.

Garnett, who is queer, says it’s frustrating to see the book challenges target diverse options.

“I’ve seen so many people older than me fighting for that representation,” says Garnett. “To see that removed from our libraries, and to see all that effort that went into putting those books there in the first place be attacked, is really hard to see.”

As a response to censorship efforts, Garnett started the club Student Advocates for Speech, where students “discuss all things censorship.” She has also become more politically engaged by sending emails to elected officials, sending testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and speaking at school board meetings. Other students from Memphis have done similar work through the Tennessee Youth Coalition.

Garnett and Webb are like many others across the country fighting to maintain the protections afforded by the First Amendment, which include the freedom to read and access information — as outlined by multiple Supreme Court cases. While attempts to censor, ban and challenge books are currently going strong — led by individuals, national groups and lawmakers alike — so are the efforts to protect them and support libraries. Even as Webb has been the target of ire, she acknowledges that the libraries in her district have more supporters than critics.

Tracking book challenges and bans can be difficult. Not all cases are reported. (Both PEN America and the American Library Association have websites for those who wish to report a book challenge.) Some titles get moved to different library sections, removed from school curricula or taken out of school and public libraries altogether. Prisons also censor which books incarcerated people are permitted to read. While book bans and restrictions lead to decreased public access, there isn’t any legislation preventing people from purchasing whatever books they like. But removing books from public spaces means young people who don’t have permission or the means to buy the books and people who can’t afford to buy them effectively do not have access to them.

According to the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, at least 4,240 books were targeted throughout the country in 2023 — though the total number is likely much higher. ALA data also shows that Tennessee is among the top 10 states for book challenges, seeing at least 350 titles challenged through 21 attempts last year alone. Most challenges are happening in rural and suburban areas, led by groups that challenge multiple titles at once. Nashville’s public school system and public library system have received only a handful of challenges in the past few years, and those haven’t led to any books’ removal from school or public libraries.

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In 2022, East Tennessee’s McMinn County school board removed Maus, Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic memoir about the Holocaust,from its eighth-grade curriculum. The Commercial Appeal reported that same year that Collierville Schools near Memphis temporarily removed at least 300 books from their collection as lawmakers considered censorship-related legislation. In 2022 and 2023, here in Middle Tennessee, Wilson County Schools removed six books from its libraries: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic; Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts); Tricks; Infandous; Damsel; and The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel. Last year, following a “decency ordinance” from the Murfreesboro City Council, four LGBTQ-themed books were removed from the public library system: Flamer, Queerfully and Wonderfully Made, This Book Is Gay and Let’s Talk About It. Although the county had to repeal the decency ordinance as part of a legal settlement, none of those books has been returned to public library shelves. (They are reportedly available to check out via the library system’s app.)

Censorship and book challenges have been encouraged in recent years by several Tennessee lawmakers. Former state Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) said on the House floor in 2022 that he would burn books after banning them from libraries. One law makes it a class-E felony and imposes a fine up to $100,000 for booksellers, distributors and publishers “to knowingly sell or distribute obscene matter,” to K-12 schools. Obscenity is defined in the state code as material that appeals to “prurient interests,” “depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct,” and “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.” The Age Appropriate Materials Act of 2022 requires schools to publish their entire library collections online, create a policy for reviewing books for age-appropriateness and create a process for those who wish to challenge them. The law left the interpretation of what age-appropriateness means to school districts.

All of these things — obscenity standards, collection policies, online catalogs and book-challenge processes — were already in place before state Republicans revived book censorship as a hot topic. This information is available through school and library websites. Even so, advocates say increased scrutiny can create an intimidating atmosphere among librarians and educators — an atmosphere that can lead to self-censorship.

“That’s the subtle effect of censorship and the campaigns against reading,” says former Nashville Public Library director Kent Oliver, who now works as a senior fellow for the ALA’s public policy and advocacy office. “It’s not just the overt attacks. It’s the whole psychological impact it has on librarians and library boards and libraries.”

The effect echoes that of a similar law, passed in 2021, that prevents schools from teaching certain concepts related to race (commonly referred to as critical race theory) and sex. While K-12 schools were rarely if ever teaching CRT (it is an academic framework mostly taught in law school), the legislation made some educators hesitant about teaching some elements of American history or engaging in classroom conversations about real-world experiences adjacent to those concepts. One Tipton County school, for example, stopped taking field trips to Memphis’ National Civil Rights Museum after the law passed. A teacher in Sullivan County was fired for teaching lessons about racism via a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a Kyla Jenée Lacey poem.

Another law passed in 2022 gave Tennessee’s Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission the power to ban books from school libraries across the state through an appeals process. If a parent challenges a book and is dissatisfied with their school’s and later their school board’s decision to keep it, they may appeal to the commission — which doesn’t have to read the challenged text in its entirety. While the commission hasn’t heard any appeals yet, new legislation passed this year could expand the pathways for that to happen. HB0843/SB1060, which amends the Age Appropriate Materials Act, passed in both the House and the Senate this month. The amendment states that materials that “in whole or in part” contain nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, “sadomasoch*stic abuse,” excess violence or something that is “patently offensive” as described in the aforementioned obscenity law are not appropriate for K-12 graders and should not be kept in school libraries. It also allows people to appeal straight to the textbook commission if a school board hasn’t responded to a book challenge within 60 days. How the legislation will affect school libraries moving forward is unclear.

One bill that was ultimately shelved would have allowed virtually any adult with a child to file a lawsuit against a public school district to enforce the ​​Age Appropriate Materials Act. (Currently, only school staff, public school students and parents of those students can do that.) The legislation was introduced by Rep. Gino Bulso (R-Brentwood), who has been accused of having a conflict of interest regarding this bill because he is currently representing parents and members of far-right group Citizens for Renewing America, which is seeking to do just that.

Groups like Citizens for Renewing America and Moms for Liberty are among those leading the push for more censorship across the nation. It’s not uncommon to see people associated with groups like these reading passages from books they disagree with at school board meetings. Websites like booklooks.org have streamlined the process for finding books to challenge via “book reports” that highlight concerns and cite specific page numbers with examples from the texts. (Conversely, the website uniteagainstbookbans.org shares “book résumés” for people to help defend them.)

Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice tells the Scene that Moms for Liberty “never thought to get involved on the book issue.” The goal of the organization, she says, is to reform the public education system by becoming more involved in children’s education, engaging in advocacy and training people to run for school board seats. Justice says the public school system is “captured” by teachers’ unions and the “progressive far left.”

“Getting laws passed isn’t enough,” says Justice when asked if she’d like to see more legislation to ensure that students aren’t accessing certain books or ideas. “But it is necessary for parents, for there to be transparency.”

Justice tells the Scene that Moms for Liberty isn’t against LGBTQ people, but rather the “sexualization of children.” She also says her group supports the teaching of history as long as it’s age-appropriate. The group mostly targets books with LGBTQ themes and those pertaining to race, taking issue with references to sex and racism. The books themselves and the materials with them are selectively highlighted — the Bible, for instance, which features a great deal of violent and sexual content, is not considered objectionable or too mature.

Moms for Liberty has been identified as an extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Some members have been linked to a white supremacist group; an Indiana chapter quoted Hitler in a newsletter; and one member suggested separating LGBTQ students from their peers. Even so, the group wields political influence in states like Tennessee and Florida. Bulso was featured as a speaker at one of Moms for Liberty’s Williamson County events; Laurie Cardoza Moore, a member of the state textbook commission who has a say in which books Tennessee’s students have access to, also has ties to the organization.

Cardoza Moore founded Proclaiming Justice to the Nations, a pro-Israel nonprofit that was previously identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (The SPLC has removed the organization from its list of hate groups.) Her organization hosted a 2023 “Taking Back America’s Children” summit, where she referenced her influence over textbook changes. She also made headlines in 2010 for opposing the construction of a mosque in Murfreesboro, and has been known to spread disinformation about 9/11 and the 2020 election. In a 2022 op-ed, Cardoza Moore accused Kent Oliver of promoting “p*rnographic, racist, antisemitic and anti-American content” in the Nashville Public Library. An editor’s note clarified that the claim was not true.

Those advocating against book bans must consider whether they’re willing to stand by their arguments even when it means libraries stocking books that they personally disagree with. If they disagree with recent book bans, would they feel the same about Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, or filmmaker D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic The Birth of a Nation? Even as we’re seeing a rise in white supremacy and far-right extremism Tennessee?

Oliver calls it “a big discussion in our profession right now.”

“I think by and large, librarians believe we need to maintain that nonpartisan collection, because we’re very committed to the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment,” he says.

The ALA’s “Library Bill of Rights” states: “Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” While not every library has the same collections, Mein Kampf is in fact available in the Nashville Public Library system and in some local schools.

Swallowed up amid the charged rhetoric around book banning are parents who make good-faith inquiries about the purposes and necessity of books that are available to children. A 2021 book challenge made in a Nashville elementary school, for example, pertains to Virginia Loh-Hagan’s Yakuza vs. Mafia.

“I am not opposed to my son being exposed to violent content if it has artistic or educational value,” reads a complaint submitted by the parent of a second-grader from Dan Mills Elementary. “Yakuza vs. Mafia does not have any artistic, cultural or educational value, and instead glamorizes violent criminal activity and guns.” According to the school’s library catalog, the book is still available.

Before the recent wave of book challenges, parents sometimes questioned various texts and presented concerns to librarians. It just wasn’t quite such a spectacle, and resolutions were usually worked out internally. Those kinds of conversations can still happen.

“Parents certainly have the right to decide what their children read,” says Oliver. “Librarians have always wanted parents to be with their kids when they’re in the library.”

The issue, he says, is when one person’s disapproval limits access for an entire community.

For all the energy spent on banning books, even more is spent protecting them. Polls, including one conducted by Ipsos in 2023, show that most Americans do not support book censorship. Likewise, courts largely rule in favor of keeping books in libraries.

The book-banning phenomenon has sparked increased engagement with challenged texts because, naturally, when people are told they can’t do something, they often want to do it even more. Widespread access to the internet makes that very easy — many of the topics parents seek to shield their children from are widely available online, in popular media and out in the real world anyway.

There are many local initiatives created to engage with banned books. Before leaving his role as director of NPL, Oliver started the Freedom to Read campaign, which featured, in part, library cards with the phrase “I read banned books.” Those cards are still available. Banned-book displays have popped up in libraries and bookstores, especially during Banned Books Week in October.

Local poet Ciona Rouse and musician Aria Cavaliere started a regular Banned Books Happy Hour at Third Man Records.

“We believe that language matters, and [we believe in] being able to intelligently have conversations around literature and language that’s crafted for people to read,” says Rouse. “I think it’s much better to be able to have conversations rather than to just shut off the language.”

Penguin Random House, the Freedom to Read Foundation, PEN America and Little Free Library have also started a Banned Wagon, which tours states to distribute free banned books — it stopped at Nashville’s The Bookshop in October.

Sarah Arnold at Parnassus Books tells the Scene, “We definitely sell more copies of books that are banned,” including two of owner Ann Patchett’s books — Bel Canto and The Patron Saint of Liars — that have been banned in Florida. Arnold also says that, when Maus and Sharon Creech’s Walk Two Moons were banned in Tennessee school districts, author Katherine Applegate bought 100 copies of each to be distributed in those areas. Parnassus also partnered with the Students of Stonewall from the Oasis Center’s Just Us program, a community for LGBTQ youth in Tennessee, to develop a curated list of books featuring LGBTQ characters and characters of color. A few students from the group shared their thoughts on representation in literature with the Scene.

“As a person who doesn’t necessarily like reading that much, seeing myself in books/characters I relate to is basically my only motivation to actually read,” says 10th-grader Alaena Smith. “It’s not only affirming but just nice to see characters that I can relate to. It can be hard in real life to find friends and people in general that understand my experiences being queer, and these books remind me that there are other people out there like me.”

“A lot of my understanding of myself has come through the books I’ve read,” says 12th-grader Ray Scott. “These books have made me feel normal, understood and accepted. When I didn’t know of anyone like me around, I could find community through literature. Knowing that people will have to unnecessarily suffer through confusion and self-hatred because of political agendas and purposeful fear-mongering is sickening. It’s always about protecting the kids, but I know firsthand that book bans do nothing but harm them.”

To prevent LGBTQ youth in Tennessee from losing access to books they feel represented by, Just Us program leader Joseph Clark — also known by his drag alter ego, Champagne Van Dyke — has started Champagne’s Book Nook, where teens across the state can request LGBTQ books, free of charge. The program has sent out more than 230 books in less than two years.

Just as much as librarians are here to protect books, they’re here to serve those who want those books by providing resources, information and sometimes just a friendly ear. If you have a question about a book, ask them about it. Remember that libraries also provide myriad resources beyond books — they offer puppet shows, fitness opportunities, crafts, author talks, multilingual conversation clubs, health and fitness equipment, tools, board games, musical instruments and more.

“We want to bring information out into communities,” says librarian Miria Webb. “We want to bring literacy out into the communities. We want to bring joy out into communities.”

Banned Together: How Book Censorship Is Affecting Tennessee (5)

Banned Together: How Book Censorship Is Affecting Tennessee (2024)

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