The question of what constitutes obscenity as it applies to material found in K–12 libraries faces conflicting opinions as the Tennessee Senate considers legislation proposing to tackle the issue.
Senate Bill 1944 (pdf) would remove the former exclusion of schools from an obscenity law that prohibits showing obscene material to minors, while also holding schools accountable for the increasing reports of sexually explicit literature and images in school materials that parents have complained about to local school board members.
Rhonda Thurman, a longtime board member for Hamilton County Schools (HCS), said the crux of the issue is the varying beliefs on what is considered pornographic, and what is not.
“I was totally shocked that there were actually mothers, and ministers, who found all of this material to be perfectly acceptable for students,” Thurman told The Epoch Times. “That’s probably been the biggest shock since my 17 years on the school board. There were actually mothers who said, ‘This is okay, and my child should be able to get this book at school.'”
Thurman and other board members enacted a book review committee to examine the process by which books are placed in the library, for the purpose of tightening book-selection policies.
“From what I’ve been able to find out, books are placed on the shelves strictly by the librarian,” Thurman said.
If the bill is passed, it would go toward helping school districts to define and write policies around obscenity within the context of how accessible it is to minors at school, Thurman said.
“If I went and read this material out loud to students at these elementary schools, I would be arrested,” Thurman said.
In her time on the school board, Thurman said she’s always trusted the administrative process and the librarians to maintain age-appropriate material on the shelves.
“I am not as naïve anymore because there are librarians defending these books to the hilt,” Thurman said. “But people are waking up. This madness has to stop.”
Moms for Social Justice
One hour and 40 minutes into a February HCS board meeting, speaker Jordan Wilson read excerpts from three books he said he found in the school’s library—”The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood—all containing graphic descriptions of sexual acts, rape, pedophilia, torture, and murder.
Wilson said the books were “supported into our school system” by Moms for Social Justice (MSJ), a Chattanooga-based activist group founded in 2016, which also has a Washington D.C. chapter.
According to its website, MSJ has a classroom literary project it says is geared toward “promoting literacy throughout Hamilton County schools and homes” by stocking “diverse libraries in at least 1 classroom per each of the twelve Opportunity Zone Schools in Hamilton County over the next year.” The books are not only “relevant and recently published works of children’s literature,” but also works that MSJ says are “representative of the populations of children who will utilize them—teaching them more about the world and people around them and encouraging a love of reading.”
The organization’s website states under its “Donate Books” request that it seeks books that it can use in classroom libraries that are authored by “people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, women, and other minorities.”
Referring to the excerpts he read at the HCS board meeting, Wilson asked the board, “Is this what we would call diverse perspectives for our children? Is this what we will call all walks of life?”
Wilson requested of the board that the books are not “canceled,” but that a complementary organization be brought in to provide alternative content.
According to Thurman, when 12 schools in the HCS district were identified as lagging in test scores, there was a state-funded initiative called opportunity zones, now inactive. Jill Levine, the chief academic officer for HCS at the time, became the chief of innovation and choice. It was through the opportunity zone program that MSJ connected with Levine to bring books into the school, Thurman said.
Later, Thurman said, MSJ came before the board to provide an update during which a representative said that MSJ had set up centers in 15 schools with plans on two more.
“They wanted us to know that they were actively seeking books from the LGBTQIA community,” Thurman said. “Well, me not knowing what the ‘I’ and ‘A’ stood for, I looked it up and it said intersexual and asexual.”
For Thurman, MSJ’s request for books espousing content with complex sexual issues to be placed in K–12 libraries became an issue.
“Who are these people and what do they do, and who gave them permission to be in our schools?” Thurman asked.
In a statement to The Epoch Times, MSJ said its Classroom Library Project initiative was originated by MSJ, not in connection to the opportunity zone program.
“We brought this non-partisan project to the then director of the Opportunity Zone,” a spokesperson for MSJ said. “We went through the proper channels and followed policies and procedures put into place by the Hamilton County School Board.”
MSJ shared an email it sent to HCS that referred to Wilson’s presentation and the book list he shared with the board that Wilson alleged was placed in the schools by MSJ.
MSJ said this was false, and that Wilson’s information wasn’t checked for validity.
“We would have answered any and all questions about our Classroom Library Project initiative had the committee chair contacted us, but no effort was made to do so,” MSJ said in the email to HCS.
MSJ said it worked with the HCS administration, principals, teachers, and staff, and that its book list was “curated by literature experts here in our community along with teachers and staff at the schools where the libraries were installed.”
“We have only donated books to classroom libraries, not school libraries,” MSJ said. “Most of the books that outside organizations have taken issue with (The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower) are high school titles and we have installed three classroom libraries in high schools since the outset of our initiative.”
Many of the titles in question, MSJ said, were already in circulation in school libraries throughout the country.
MSJ’s initiative was not taxpayer-funded but paid for by a grant from the Chattanooga-based Weldon F. Osborne Foundation, MSJ said. The books, furniture, and décor for the classroom libraries were donated by individuals or sponsored by local businesses.
“We want to be clear that we are extremely proud of this initiative,” MSJ said. “We have found ourselves in a position where we have had to defend a community initiative that we feel is needed and valuable (and have heard such from teachers and administrators in our area).”
MSJ said none of the books MSJ donated to schools were pornographic.
State Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Republican, explained the bill on the Tennessee House floor in a February 2022 criminal justice subcommittee meeting. In addition to removing exceptions to schools in the obscenity law, the bill creates a process by which complaints about books can be reviewed on a local level “so that books aren’t arbitrarily removed from the school system.”
The process would rely on community standards based on the three-part Miller test, a legal guideline for determining obscenity that relies on “whether the average person applying community standards would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.”
The Miller test also asks if the work describes sexual conduct in an offensive way and whether the work lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.
The bill creates a process for reporting to the state books deemed inappropriate so that they can be monitored, and sets up an enforcement mechanism within the state Department of Education to bring accountability to local school boards.
In the same criminal justice subcommittee meeting, Angela Redden, a bookstore owner and former teacher from Dickson County, said the bill would violate the First Amendment and would signal to communities that teachers and librarians can’t be trusted.
“This overreach could allow for incredibly restrictive censorship, and, depending on who’s making the determination, could allow for subversion of the intended use of the bill,” Redden said.
When asked how she defined obscenity, Redden said it’s different for each student, and that teachers and librarians are trained to make those decisions.
Rep. Jerry Sexton, a Republican, commented on Redden’s statement about trusting teachers and librarians.
“I’ve looked at some of the literature and I’m appalled,” Sexton told Redden. “If you’re allowing—or any teacher or any librarian is allowing—stuff like this in [schools], no, I do not trust you and I do not trust the teachers.”
Kristen Benton, a mom from Williamson County, spoke in favor of the bill.
After finding materials containing what she defined as obscene content in her children’s school library, Benton got other parents to join her to read excerpts at the school board meeting, during which the online live feed was muted so that viewers at home couldn’t hear what they read, Benton said.
“Notorious serial killer Ted Bundy said that pornography played a key role in the violence that fueled his fantasy life,” Benton said. “In his final interview, he cautioned about the danger of pornography and graphic violence and how it can impact, quote—’unattended and unaware children who have vulnerabilities to become a Ted Bundy’—end quote. Even the most violent serial killers of all time cautioned against exposure to pornography and its role in fostering depravity, yet school districts across the state are making obscene content available to the most vulnerable to its influence and corruption.”
Grooming or Critical Thinking?
Country music artist John Rich also spoke in the meeting, comparing the availability of what he defined as obscene material in schools to the process of grooming.
Rich defined grooming as outlined by federal statutes and the American Bar Association, which states that a grooming tactic can involve discussing sexually explicit information under the guise of education to prepare the child for sexual activity by reducing his or her inhibitions through exposure to the content.
Rich asked the legislators what the difference is between educators and a man luring children into his van after school.
“There is a difference, by the way,” Rich said. “They can run away from the guy in the white van.”
Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a Democrat, said he disagrees with Rich’s comparison and said he’s concerned about the bill’s potential to thwart educators’ ability to teach children critical thinking skills that could be learned from engaging in ideas with which many might not agree.
Though he doesn’t support putting pornographic content in the hands of children, Hardaway said sensationalizing critical thinking could undermine public education.
“How do we balance the protection for our children against what the community would label as obscenity and pornographic material against critical thinking skills?” Hardaway asked.
Rich responded, stating that because of the exception for schools in current Tennessee law, there are no consequences for introducing a minor to sexual content within the school system, which he said needs to change.
“I believe people have hijacked the elbow room they were given to have critical thinking,” Rich said. “I absolutely believe in teaching our kids critical thinking.”
However, he said, some educators have gone outside the lines of the intention of critical thinking.
“And because of that, our children are being hurt,” Rich said.