New law puts schoolbook sellers, distributors at risk for criminal prosecution

Gov. Bill Lee signs law one nonprofit leader calls a tactic common in authoritarian governments

By: - May 4, 2023 6:02 am
(Photo illustration by John Partipilo)

(Photo illustration by John Partipilo)

Gov. Bill Lee has signed a new law that puts book publishers, sellers and distributors at risk of prosecution for providing written materials to the state’s public schools that may at any point be deemed obscene.

The new law could open book vendors to Class E felony charges, carrying 1-6 years in prison and a minimum $10,000 fine that could be increased to $100,000 for the newly created offense.

Library and free expression groups — including PEN America and the Tennessee Association of School Librarians — have called the measure an effort to censor and intimidate the publishing industry and one that will likely deter book publishers everywhere from doing business with Tennessee schools.

Strengthening the potential for felony charges against publishers and distributors harkens back in history decades and decades ago when government sought to stymie the circulation of new ideas and information . . . This bill reflects common tactics by authoritarian governments abroad

– Jonathan Friedman, PEN America

The new law is one of 119 being considered this year in state legislatures across the nation to limit children’s access to written materials — some similarly creating new criminal offenses while others have involved redefining state obscenity laws or otherwise restricting children’s access to reading material, according to a database of legislation compiled by EveryLibrary, a library political action group.

Only a handful of states are considering measures similar to Tennessee’s approach targeting book sellers and distributors.

Among them is Texas, where proposed legislation would require publishers to affix age ratings to the covers of books sold to public and charter schools; school districts would be barred from buying books from publishers who failed to comply.

In Louisiana, proposed legislation would provide for attorney general investigations into publishers and distributors of material that is “harmful to minors.”

Debates over suitable and unsuitable books for kids have emerged in school and library board meetings across the state, but this law is the only one focused on public school children’s access to books to make it through the Tennessee Legislature this year.

“Strengthening the potential for felony charges against publishers and distributors harkens back in history decades and decades ago when government sought to stymie the circulation of new ideas and information — eras associated with the very definition of censorship and suppression,” Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s Free Expression and Education program, said in a statement.

“This bill reflects common tactics by authoritarian governments abroad,” he said.

Tennessee’s law would leave it up to District Attorneys to determine if materials meet the state’s definition of obscene. Obscene is defined under state law as sexual conduct depicted in a “patently offensive way” that “appeals to the prurient interest” and, as  a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value — according to an average person applying contemporary community standards

The law, introduced by Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, and Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, takes effect July 1. Lee signed the measure into law on Friday.

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Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.