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Library officials weigh in on proposed "Parental Oversight Bill"

Under the bill, an elected board of five adults would make decisions on what material is sexually inappropriate for children in public libraries.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A proposed bill in the Tennessee state legislature that would create a parental oversight committee for public libraries is causing concern for librarians in the state.

Under the "Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act," five adults would be elected to a board who would then hold public hearings about any concerns that age-inappropriate sexual material was being made available to children in the library.

"Age-inappropriate sexual material" is defined in the act as any form of nudity, sexuality, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse that "appeals to the prurient interest of minors" and is "patently offensive" to adults as to what's appropriate for minors.

The board will also consider if the material "taken as a whole, lacks serious literacy, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."

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The board will determine if the material should be removed from the library and the decision of that board would be final with no appeals to the existing governing body of the library or government agency.

If a librarian or library employee violates the rule, it will be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or jail time. In addition, the library would not be eligible to receive any state funding.

The Tennessee Library Association (TLA) issued a statement on Thursday that they were watching the legislation closely because as it stands, it "contains language the organization finds equatable to censorship of library collections, which we oppose."

At this point, the TLA said, state law allows public libraries to have local control over their collections via local governing boards appointed by local government. 

"Therefore, TLA feels the proposal, if enacted, would mandate unnecessary and duplicated legislation, placing an added burden of government oversight on local library boards," the statement reads.

TLA said it will work with state lawmakers on the bill, which is still in its very early stages, to "protect the freedom to read in Tennessee libraries in partnership with our legislators."

A similar bill is also proposed in Missouri.

Right here in East Tennessee, Knox County Library's Erin Phelps said, in the broader scheme of things, it is important to remember the purpose libraries serve and what that means to the people they serve. 

"We are a part of the community and we want the best choices for the community," she said."I'm a parent, too, and I get wanting to protect our children, but we think the people of Knox County do a great job of making those choices for their own children."

She added most libraries across the country have the process they use for choosing books listed on their websites, and she is not surprised it is spurring conversation because people are passionate about their books.

"People really care about choice and about their public institutions, and they want to make sure that they have those choices. So I'm not surprised people want to make good choices for their own children," she said. 

Lawmakers only introduced the bill at the beginning of the month. For that reason, Phelps said we will have to wait and see how it unfolds. 

"We don't know what the final language is yet," she said. "Knox County Library and the TLA are paying very close attention. We are aware of what's going on, we're kind of waiting to see what the final language will be."

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