A Controversial 'Decency' Law Is Being Used To Challenge A City’s Public Library Books

At the November meeting of the Rutherford County, Tennessee, steering committee, Chairman Craig Harris asked the county’s public library board about their feelings on books that conservative members of the community had deemed indecent — and potentially in violation of a new city ordinance promoting “decency.”

“Do you think ‘Let’s Talk About It’ should have been removed?” Harris asked Rita Shacklett, the library system’s director. He was referring to a graphic novel for teens written by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, as a guide to relationships and sex education.

“It’s a little too graphic in my personal opinion,” Shacklett replied, “so I’m OK with removing that one.”

There in Rutherford County’s Murfreesboro, less than 40 miles from Nashville, local officials and library leaders seemed to be in agreement: Residents shouldn’t have free access to certainlibrary books.

“Several books that had been brought to our attention through the public were, to me, disturbing,” Steve Sullivan, the library board chairman, said at the meeting.

In August, the library board voted to remove four books from the library. “Let’s Talk About It”; “Flamer,” by Mike Curato; “Queerfully & Wonderfully Made,” edited by Leigh Finke; and “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson, are no longer available on library shelves, though board members said the books were still accessible digitally.

Two other books ― “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe, and “An ABC of Equality,” by Chana Ginelle Ewing ― were kept in the adult section and the young adult section, respectively.

The steering committee, which is charged with proposing new rules for the county, was dedicating part of its monthly meeting to a discussion of a library resolution to align its book-selection policy with a newly enacted city ordinance that bans “indecent behavior.”

In June, the city of Murfreesboro passed a decency ordinance, originally designed to ban drag performances on city property. The text of the law says it is intended to promote “public decency, [maintain] family-friendly environments in public places, and [protect] against harm to minors from public expressions appealing to prurient interests.”

The ordinance also contains a clause that cites another city law which classifies public homosexuality as indecent behavior. The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has filed a lawsuit against the new ordinance, accusing it of violating the First and 14th amendments. The ordinance was temporarily blocked, but has since been allowed to go into effect.

The police chief and the city manager are charged with enforcing it by deciding which incidents violate the law, according to Murfreesboro Mayor Shane McFarland.

However, the ordinance is now being used as a basis for officials to align policies for the county library system, which is headquartered in Murfreesboro, with the “decency” ordinance — signaling an effort to ban even more books, largely ones with LGBTQ+ themes.

The library resolution being discussed by the committee and library board would ban funding for “indecent” materials or conduct, which is defined as “nudity, lewd or sexually suggestive actions, indecent exposure, sexual actions, excessive or offensive intimate public displays of affections, subject children to a prurient interest, and any behavior that violates state and local laws or regulations.”

“The county doesn’t have a position until the Commission approves a resolution, and I can’t speak for the library system or the City of Murfreesboro,” Lisa Kaye, Rutherford County’s public information officer, told HuffPost.

The county did not respond to a question regarding who would determine which books fell outside the guidelines. The City of Murfreesboro directed HuffPost’s request for comment to the library board of directors, which did not respond.

Meanwhile, some in Rutherford County are worried about how the ordinance will be applied, and the precedent it will set.

“My biggest fear is how this is going to be implemented,” Keri Lambert, one of the co-founders of the new Rutherford County Library Alliance, told HuffPost. The group formed after the decency ordinance was passed in June, in order to support libraries and fight censorship. “What if the next group of leadership finds interracial relationships indecent?”

So far, the only books removed from the Rutherford County public libraries have been books that deal with LGBTQ+ issues. County officials have repeatedly claimed at public meetings that it is merely a coincidence.

Lambert is worried the overly broad nature of the ordinance could spell danger in the future. “I’m concerned about the library because I believe knowledge is power,” she said. “[It’s] the first line of democracy and free access, and once the government starts censoring, it sets us up for something scary.”

Books for teens and children — particularly ones that include LGBTQ+ themes, any depiction of sexuality, or issues related to race — have become culture-war targets for conservatives in recent years.

Under the pretext of protecting children from “sexually explicit” materials, Republican elected officials and conservative activists across the country have sought to ban books from school and public libraries, most of them books with LGBTQ+ themes. According to the American Library Association, book bans nearly doubled from 2021 to 2022.

“Of those titles, the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color,” the ALA said in a March 2023 statement about the increase in book bans.

“They’re starting with saying they want to protect children, but if you listen at the meetings, they’re saying they can’t have any media that doesn’t meet Tennessee state law on decency or obscenity,” Lambert said.

Pettus Read, the vice chairman of the steering committee, implied during the meeting that removing children’s access to certain books wouldn’t be enough, and that banning them completely would be more suitable.

“They need to be moved so high that even I can’t even reach them,” he said of the six books that had been challenged.

It suggests a belief that not even adults should be allowed to access books with LGBTQ+ themes. “They’re not just banning books,” Lambert said. “They’re banning thinking.”

The steering committee isn’t expected to vote on the library resolution until next month. Members of the community are still able to file complaints about books.