A newly elected district attorney in Tennessee said during her campaign she would consider prosecuting teachers and librarians who stock LGBTQ books in libraries, but ultimately called on school boards to ban books from schools.
A video taken earlier this year depicts Coty Wamp, the former public defender of Hamilton County, in a forum-like setting responding to a long-winded question about what can be done about books identified as inappropriate by Moms for Liberty, a national far-right group with nearly 100,000 members across 37 states. The organization has called books about LGBTQ youth obscene and has run nationwide campaigns to have them removed from the shelves of school libraries and classrooms.
“I think that there’s going to come a time in some of these books where it crosses a criminal line,” Wamp says in the video. “It’s called contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” The video went viral after Wamp's victory on Tuesday.
According to Tennessee state law, an adult contributing to or encouraging the delinquency or unruly behavior of a child is considered a misdemeanor offense.
“I do think there’s a fine line where all of a sudden, obviously, if a teacher is handing a child something that I think is sexually explicit, I think we’ve got to look at criminal statute and determine if the elements are there, if it meets every element of a criminal offense,” she says in the video. “But man, this begins and ends with our school board. So, because even if I prosecute somebody for this book, there’s still all the other ones that our school board’s going to have to deal with.”
In an attempt to walk back the comments she made in the video, Wamp denied to Motherboard saying she would prosecute a librarian or teacher for the material contained in books in their schools. She previously spoke to Jezebel and also tried to walk back her comments.
“I am not and never will be a proponent of adults giving elementary-age children any type of material that is sexually explicit,” Wamp told Motherboard. “I ran for DA in a county with a violent crime problem. I will focus on that and let the school board focus on what materials our children have access to.”
The former public defender told Motherboard the footage could have been captured by an attendee of one of dozens of her campaign events for conservative groups across East Tennessee over a 14-month period. But context clues—namely the whiteboard behind her with upcoming dates for school board candidate meet-and-greets for the local Hamilton County chapter of Moms for Liberty—suggest that it was a local Moms for Liberty group meeting in March 2022.
The video also shows someone in the audience handing Wamp a book from a Hamilton County elementary school. The book is called It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health written by Robie Harris and illustrated by Michael Emberley. It was first published in 1994 for preadolescent children undergoing puberty and has been updated several times over the years to reflect modern sexual health vocabularies, LGBTQ representation, and advances in contraception methods, among other topics.
As Wamp flips through it, she makes note of the “peddling, touching, kissing, and sexual intercourse.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how it’s not contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” which is a crime, she says after an audience member tells her to “look at the sex positions” in the book.
“I’ll say this, though. It comes for me as a lawyer as somebody who’s prosecuted these cases. You also have to determine who, at the end of the day, is responsible for putting these books in the school,” Wamp says in the video. “We have to talk about it. And the bottom line is the school board needs to remove it from the schools. I mean, I don’t see another option.”
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It’s worth pointing out that Generation Alpha children are starting puberty earlier than children of previous generations. Reports have found that Alpha children born female are showing signs of developing breasts, one of the first signs of puberty, as early as age 6 or 7. Scientists are studying how obesity, chemicals and stress may impact girls who go through earlier puberty, but little remains definitively known about how race and environmental factors may impact adolescent development.
Carolyn Foote, a school librarian and member of #FReadom Fighters—a Texas-based group advocating for students, teachers, and librarians—says libraries have books about puberty to correlate with many states’ sex education lessons.
“Libraries are places of voluntary inquiry with thousands of books,” Foote told Motherboard. “No one is asking any child to pick a particular book or handing each child the same book. We respect the needs of each different child and family.”
The video comes amid a nationwide conservative backlash that has made libraries into a battleground for LGBTQ people and their allies, people seeking abortions, and other vulnerable groups. Conservative groups have called to ban books by queer and Black authors, and armed far-right groups such as the Proud Boys have disrupted drag queen story hours and other LGBTQ programming at libraries across the U.S. Librarians themselves have also found themselves targets of harassment and criticism after featuring books about LGBTQ youth.
Moms for Liberty has been a key strategist responsible for the rise in book bans. The national organization has been seeking to flip seats on school boards, remove books with contents that go against their ideologies, and advocate for policies that make these efforts easier to achieve.
Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said that outrage over books in school libraries should be grounds to hold librarians accountable has become a regular talking point for politicians making stump speeches.
“This is a very confusing situation because the librarians are duty-bound to uphold the First Amendment, to consider how they make books accessible to people that contain information that people might want to read and the whole concept of the library is one where people have a degree of freedom to choose what they read,” Friedman told Motherboard. “One of the challenges here and what’s really the case of a book like this is either someone is old enough to understand the book and read it, or they pick it up and they might be reading it but they don’t understand it.”
Friedman says in watching this video, that it’s worth questioning why Wamp, Moms for Liberty and other groups believe sex education information is so taboo that it could result in something as extreme as prosecution for a librarian. As the school year begins across the country, librarians and teachers are pointing out that the pattern of book banning has evolved from last year to school districts changing access for students either through school board-approved policies or unwritten policies regarding books in classrooms and in school libraries.