Editor’s column: War on librarians is another effort to destabilize public schools

March 7, 2022 9:57 am
(Photo illustration by John Partipilo)

(Photo illustration by John Partipilo)

I’ve got a soft spot for librarians. 

As a kid, my mom hauled us to the downtown Franklin library every week as far back as I can remember. Even before I could read, I went along as she and my older brother checked out books. After I, too, could read, I got to know all the librarians and I’m still friends with my favorite, who at the time was a college student working part time at the library. 

She – Savantha is her name – and Mrs. Underwood, the older doyenne of the library, introduced me to so many authors and books that I came to love, including the classics of Maud Hart Lovelace and Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

In fact, my librarian friends are indirectly responsible for me becoming a writer. They told me about the books of William O. Steele, who had grown up just down the street from the library and who wrote historical fiction about the settlement of Tennessee for children and young adults.

Here’s what my librarians did not do: Introduce me to pornography. 

And to state that librarians are perverts who distribute pornography through school libaries or groom children for sex would be laughable if it weren’t so harmful and disgusting. 

Librarians are the enemy du jour of Tennessee’s right wing conservatives and I’m hard-pressed to know how we arrived at this point. Librarians have always conjured up cultural images of bookish and quiet people and the librarians I know simply love to read and desire to help others, particularly children, develop a similar love of books. 

Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, is sponsoring a bill that would prohibit public schools from possessing “obscene material that is harmful to minors on public school premises.” 

On the face of it, House Bill 1944 sounds fine. But the bill summary acknowledges that present law already makes possession or distribution of obscene material an offense, with one exception: If it’s “possessed by a person having scientific, educational, governmental or other similar justification.” 

And there’s the problem: Who will determine what passes for obscene? In 1964, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornogrpahy in Jacobellis v. Ohio, “I know it when I see it.” 

Critics of librarians like Robby Starbuck and Rep. Jerry Sexton would do better to be concerned about the fact that many of our kids in public schools can’t read proficiently. In 2020, before the pandemic, a report showed just 36% of Tennessee’s third graders were passing the state’s reading proficiency test. 

But Tennessee conservative activists have a draconian view of what constitutes pornography, including the mating cycles of seahorses, an issue that has outraged Moms For Liberty in Williamson County. 

Nor am I sure I trust the witnesses testifying before the legislature in support of Cepicky’s bill to be accurate judges of what’s inappropriate for kids. Country singer John Rich, who said that the difference in perverts riding around in vans looking for children to abduct and school librarians is that the librarians have a captive audience, is best known for a sexually-suggestive song called “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy.” Also testifying on behalf of the bill last week was Victoria Jackson, a former Saturday Night Live comic who harassed a Muslim neighbor in Wiliamson County and called former President Barack Obama a “Muslim jihadist,” and GOP  congressional candidate Robby Starbuck.

Starbuck told members of the Tennessee House Criminal Justice Subcommittee that he and his wife “had to pull (their) kids out of public school” because school librarians are distributing material so salacious that if a non-librarian did so, they would be classified as a sex-offender. 

The same day Jackson and Starbuck testified, the Associated Press reported Rep. Jerry Sexton, R-Bean Station, lashed out at librarians testifying, saying “I don’t appreciate what’s going in our libraries, what’s being put in front of our children and shame on you for putting it there.”

I’m going to suggest that perhaps Rich, Starbuck and Sexton spend a bit more time in public schools to find out that librarians aren’t pedophiles “grooming” kids as victims. I know a couple of school librarians: they took on debt to go back to school and acquire new skills to be able to suggest age appropriate books that kids can learn from and enjoy. 

Starbuck and Sexton would do better to be concerned about the fact that many of our kids in public schools can’t read proficiently. In 2020, before the pandemic, a report showed just 36% of Tennessee’s third graders were passing the state’s reading proficiency test. 

An annual report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has provided national, state and district-level evaluations of students’ academic development since 1969, last provided an update on Tennessee in 2019. At that time, Tennessee’s fourth graders were reading at a level of 219 out of a possible 500.  Sadly, that’s not far off the national average but the last year Tennessee’s kids improved in reading was 1994—28 years ago. For almost 30 years, reading proficiency in our school children has declined. 

Seems to me that all this talk about pornography in school libraries is another false flag to destabilize public schools, and a greater worry than what kids are reading is whether we are teaching our children to read at all. 


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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.