Textbook commission asks for legal review of guidance for library book challenges

Tennessee's textbook commission asked again for more support from state lawmakers during a meeting Wednesday.

The commission — formally the Tennessee Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission — met to discuss and vote on final changes to guidance for school districts concerning complaints against library books under a new state law that went into effect this year. It also requires schools to publish a list of library and classroom materials.

But Commission chair Linda Cash also shared a statement about the commission's needs, asking for more staff and an independent attorney to help navigate the implementation of the new law.

In September, Cash told a legislative subcommittee the law has created additional work for "people who already have a full load."

The commission's original deadline to issue guidance was Dec. 1, well into the school year. However, the guidance is still in draft stage.

Legal review requested

The textbook commission on Wednesday worked through some details of its guidance, but the draft document has not yet been issued to the public. Changes discussed at the meeting included:

  • Add the statement that districts must ensure "all materials are not in violation of state statutes."

  • A grammar change from "the checklist" to "a checklist" ensuring the responsibility falls on the district to develop a checklist to follow for complaint reviews.

  • Clarification to ensure local decisions don't impact more grade levels than the original complaint intended.

  • Commission decisions on library books may be appealed three years after the initial review, timed to the appointment of new commission members.

  • Complainants may file no more than two appeals within a year.

The commission also voted in favor of requesting a review from Tennessee's attorney general or the Department of Education's legal team before issuing the guidance to the public.

"We have gotten zero guidance from any attorneys, and we're just out here as volunteers doing this," said commission member and Tipton County Schools superintendent John Combs, who proposed the request.

Commission member and Cumberland County Schools librarian Lee Houston made a suggestion that didn't make the final cut: to require commission members to read appealed material in its entirety before reaching a decision.

"When we talked to the library panel that was something that they really pushed and what the librarians see is that when you're reading a book or anything else that you take it in its entirety and not just something out of context," Houston said. "That's kind of like not listening to both sides of the story and making a decision. I don't think that that's really fair."

Conservative activist Laurie Cardoza Moore agreed with Houston, but there wasn't enough support to bring the proposal to a vote.

"We should be reading cover to cover or watching, reviewing the materials because if we're going to make a decision we do have to have it in its entirety," Cardoza Moore said.

How did we get here?

Wednesday's meeting came on the heels of a November meeting when commission members heard from school librarians who emphasized the importance of local flexibility because populations served by each school district have unique needs and interests.

One librarian, Claiborne County Schools' Blake Hopper, told the commission that in his nine years as a librarian, he's had zero complaints escalate because he listens to the needs of the students and families at his school. As the commission, educators and librarians across the state have worked to update policies, librarians have said they already have systems in place to address parent concerns.

Under the new law, the textbook commission can issue blanket bans on books even after local districts decide to take no action. However, challenges are limited to those connected with the school community, including parents and guardians, employees and students. This feature of the law has drawn criticism from lawmakers and school boards alike, including in Williamson County, where some school board members advocated for allowing anyone to make complaints.

Wilson County recently voted under the law to remove two books deemed sexually graphic from school libraries.

Anika Exum is a reporter for The Tennessean covering youth and education. Reach her on Twitter @aniexum.

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This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee textbook commission requests legal review of library book guidance