Virginia Rejects Move to Ban Books

A proposal would have allowed parents to nix “sexually explicit” work like Beloved and Romeo and Juliet from school reading lists

The Virginia Board of Education has rejected a proposed regulation that would have granted parents a line item veto on class reading lists with books containing “sexually explicit content.” The ACLU of Virginia has been highly critical of the measure and argued that the ambiguity of the term “sexually explicit” would produce a slippery slope of suppression. In a letter to the Board, ACLU representatives warned of the possible ramifications for classic titles, including Romeo and Juliet, Beloved, and Slaughterhouse-Five.

The proposal was hotly debated, but ultimately rejected by the Board, which instead approved a compromise measure that would guarantee parents the right to know what their children are reading (but no right to veto books).

Summing up the Board’s current stance, member Daniel Gecker told the Richmond Times, “We are addressing this by saying we are not going to address the sexually explicit issue in the classroom and we are going to rely on local policy to deal with those issues.” (Talk about ambiguity.)

The standoff has been years in the making. Back in 2013, local parent Laura Murphy was outraged to learn that her son had read a sex scene in Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. Murphy devised a rule that would require teachers to provide parents with a complete reading list at the start of each term, with potentially objectionable titles highlighted; parents would then have a right to replace those texts with substitutes. The plan initially appeared last year in the Virginia State Legislature. It passed both chambers, but was vetoed by Governor Terry McAuliffe (D). The measure was then revived as a proposed regulation before the Board of Education.

Unfortunately, the Virginia debate does not appear to be anomalous. Recent Tennessee protests have sought to ban a text book for its propagation of “Islamic propaganda.” Elsewhere in Virginia, Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird have come under fire.

While it unfortunately appears that teachers’ opinions have been minimized in the debate, Charles Miller, a Virginia educator with 40 years of experience was allowed to address the board during the hearing. He told members that “unfiltered sexually explicit messages bombard our kids every day…ironically, these regulations seek to reduce some of the greatest works of literature to nothing more than one of those messages.”

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