ACLU joins free speech groups to oppose effort to label books ‘sexually explicit’ in Virginia

aclu virginiaThe ACLU of Virginia has joined the National Coalition Against Censorship and other free speech groups to call on the Virginia Board of Education to reject a regulation requiring schools to notify parents whenever books and textbooks containing “sexually explicit materials” are taught.

The proposed amendment follows the near identical requirements of the so-called ‘Beloved Bill’, named after controversy surrounding Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which was vetoed by Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe in April. A similar policy was also considered in Chesterfield County this past summer but was rejected after review. The ACLU-VA and the NCAC expressed their concerns about the new proposed regulation in a Nov. 16 letter to Va. Board of Education President Dr. Billy Cannaday.

The ACLU-VA and NCAC’s opposition to labeling or “red flagging” school books as “sexually explicit” maintains that the term is overbroad, potentially prejudicial in its use and can work to stigmatize books of educational value. Literary Classics such as, for example, Romeo and Juliet, The Diary of Anne Frank, Slaughterhouse Five, and Brave New Worldcould be labeled as such when decontextualized passages are flagged and the wider themes of the works are ignored.

“Curriculum decisions belong in the hands of local school divisions, both as a matter of constitutional law and policy,” said ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. “Neither the legislature nor the Board of Education should take on the role of a super school board making decisions for parents, teachers, school administrators and school boards across the Commonwealth. School divisions have existing and effective policies that allow parents to raise concerns about materials used in our local schools.”

She continued: “The Board of Education should stop trying to impose an unconstitutional operational requirement on school boards, and go back to evaluating whether the standards of quality are funded at a level and with a formula that serves the best interests of Virginia’s school children regardless of economic status or geography.”

The letter also notes that implementing and acting on the amendment would raise First Amendment concerns. According to Texas v. Johnson (1989), schools are prohibited from discriminating against “the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” This includes teachers and school officials singling out certain books based on passages they subjectively deem to be inappropriate. The letter is co-signed by the ACLU-VA, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, American Booksellers for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, Authors Guild and PEN America.

“We are disappointed to see that the Department of Education quietly attempting to enact this deeply problematic regulation,” said NCAC’s Josh Zuckerman. “Not only does it raise First Amendment concerns, it is buried within a lengthy and hardly publicized document, denying citizens the chance to weigh in on this important and controversial issue.”

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