Bill would give civil standing to sue school districts over ‘inappropriate’ books

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A bill making its way through the legislature could have a direct impact on a legal case taking place in Williamson County.

The Tennessee Senate officially passed SB1858, which would grant legal standing to any student, student’s parent or guardian or school employee to civilly sue their school district if a school “fails to implement the requirements” of the Tennessee Age Appropriate Materials Act of 2022.

The 2022 law is an effective book ban in public and charter schools in Tennessee, according to critics of the law. Proponents of the law say it is a tool to ensure no student in Tennessee gains access to “inappropriate” reading material.

The bill, as it was amended Thursday morning, grants “a student, a student’s parent or guardian, or a school employee” standing to file civil suits against schools where the student is enrolled or the employee works in chancery court if they don’t comply fully with the 2022 law. The bill stipulates, however, that it does not create a right to appeal “a determination made by a local board of education, public charter school governing body, or the state textbook and instructional materials quality commission” on matters related to age appropriateness or suitability.

RELATED: Parents sue Williamson Co. School Board over decision to keep ‘inappropriate’ books on shelves

During debate on the Senate floor Thursday, March 28, Nashville Sen. Jeff Yarbro (D) said the bill was inappropriate and flew in the face of the separation of powers.

“We are interfering with what, in Tennessee, for more than a century, has been seen as something that is within the province of the judiciary,” he said. “The judiciary decides whether or not somebody meets the constitutional requirements of standing. That is a pure function of the separation of powers, and the legislature doesn’t have any influence on whether or not someone has suffered an injury. Authorizing people to go enforce laws at will is not something that we are actually authorized to do.”

Yarbro also said this law would be legislative interference in an ongoing court case, referencing a Williamson County lawsuit filed by parents over the district’s enforcement of the Age Appropriate Materials Act. The court filing lists three Jane Doe plaintiffs who are “parents of children who attend or who are eligible to attend Williamson County high schools.” They claim in their suit Williamson County Schools (WCS) Board of Education has “failed to determine whether certain materials in the school libraries were not appropriate for students who may have access to them.”

The books at issue are “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens, “Speak” by Laurie Halse Andersen, “The Field Guide to the North American Teenager” by Ben Philippe and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer.

The suit claims Williamson County Schools violated the law when it elected not to remove those five books from all school libraries in June 2023.

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They asked the Court to order WCS to comply with the law and/or remove the five books they deemed inappropriate for students.

“This legislation, Mr. Speaker, seems to be—at least would seem to be applicable in an ongoing lawsuit that’s going on within the state challenging a school where the issues of standing have come up,” Yarbro said Thursday, referencing the case. “If that case is decided and appealed, the standing decisions would be something that the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court will have to deal with.”

Yarbro said the legislature shouldn’t be “intervening in an ongoing case.”

“I just think that’s deeply against what our role is,” he said. “Second, intervening in this way seems to transgress what the Constitution requires of us.”

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The suit is brought by Brentwood Republican Rep. Gino Bulso, who is listed as the prime sponsor of the House version of the legislation.

The House bill was assigned to the Finance, Ways, and Means Subcommittee in February but wasn’t heard; instead, the measure was “placed behind the budget,” meaning it won’t be debated further until the state passes a budget. Those hearings are expected to be done in April.

The fiscal note attached to both versions of the bill says it may “result in mandatory increase in state and local expenditures” but the exact cost “cannot be reasonably determined” yet.

There are not currently any amendments filed on the House bill to match the Senate amendment.

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