The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tennessee lawmaker suggests burning banned books


An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the bill is headed to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) to sign into law. Differences between the versions of the bill passed by the state House and Senate need to be resolved first before it is sent to the governor’s desk, and the story has been corrected.

The Republican-led Tennessee state House passed a bill Wednesday that would require public school librarians to submit to the state a list of book titles for approval, as a GOP lawmaker suggested burning books that are deemed inappropriate.

During a contentious debate on the bill in the House, state Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D) asked state Rep. Jerry Sexton (R) what he would do with the books that he and the state consider inappropriate for libraries.

“You going to put them in the street? Light them on fire? Where are they going?” Clemmons asked.

“I don’t have a clue, but I would burn them,” Sexton replied.

“That’s what I thought,” Clemmons said.

Book burning is emblematic of authoritarian regimes, and it was notably carried out in Nazi Germany. One of the most prominent examples in history occurred May 10, 1933, when students in German universities set fire to more than 25,000 books that were deemed “un-German,” according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. The action came after some 40,000 people gathered to hear Joseph Goebbels, chief propagandist for the Nazi Party, deliver an address declaring “No to decadence and moral corruption,” according to the museum.

Under the Tennessee House bill, librarians would be required to submit to a state-run commission a list of book titles in their collections for approval. The Tennessee state Senate approved a different version of the bill. After differences between the two are resolved, it will head to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) to be signed into law.

At the White House on Wednesday at an event honoring teachers, President Biden decried politically motivated efforts targeting books that he argued made teaching even harder.

“There are too many politicians trying to score political points trying to ban books, even math books,” he said, referring to Florida’s recent moves. “Did you ever think when you’d be teaching you’re gonna be worried about book burnings and banning books all because it doesn’t fit somebody’s political agenda?”

According to Fox 17 Nashville, Sexton has defended the measure by saying that currently, “there’s no clear direction … on how these books are getting in there.”

The bill, according to Sexton, would also allow parents to flag books on librarians’ lists “that they don’t like,” allowing them to “appeal” to authorities on the book’s future on the shelves.

Democrats and education organizations have fought the measure. In a statement Tuesday, the Tennessee Association of School Librarians called it “gross government overreach” and not in the best interest of the state’s students.

“History hasn’t looked fondly on those who banned books or those who burn books. I’m not sure that’s who we want to be included with,” state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D) said.

After the Tennessee House voted to pass the bill, Clemmons said he was “speechless.”

“Here’s the final vote on the GOP ‘book burning bill,’ ” Clemmons tweeted. “I can refer to the bill by this name, bc the bill’s floor sponsor literally just said he’d burn the books removed from the bookshelves. And he said it on the #TN House floor.”

The Tennessee bill comes amid a “historic effort” by conservative groups across the country to ban books and teaching materials that they find objectionable, often publications that touch on racism, gender, politics and sexual identity, according to the American Library Association’s annual report on book censorship.

“These groups sought to pull books from school and public library shelves that share the stories of people who are gay, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of color, immigrants, and refugees,” the ALA said in its report. “But we know that banning books won’t make these realities and lived experiences disappear, nor will it erase our nation’s struggles to realize true equity, diversity, and inclusion.”

The ALA said it had tracked 729 attempts to remove library, school and university materials in 2021, leading to 1,597 book challenges or removals — the highest number recorded since the association began tracking the phenomenon 20 years ago.

Hannah Natanson contributed to this report.