ABFE Responds to Virginia Judge’s Tentative Ruling on “Obscene” Books

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The American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) strongly condemns a Virginia judge’s tentative opinion that the books Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury might be “obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors” and the petitioners’ preliminary injunction against Barnes & Noble and other booksellers to prevent sales of books.

The judge has ordered the authors and publishers of the books to present more evidence so that she can make a final decision regarding whether the books may be sold or possessed in Virginia, by either minors or adults.

The last time a book was banned for being “obscene” was in the 1960s. Then, In 1973, the Supreme Court provided a three-question test to determine if a particular material is obscene: Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the “prurient interest”; whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct; and whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Moreover, ABFE was founded in 1990 in part because the Meese Commission on Pornography spurred state legislation to control sexual explicit materials, which threatened bookstores’ ability to sell legal materials in their bookstores.

The Virginia judge’s opinion is troubling in that the order could threaten the First Amendment right of a bookseller to sell a book, and that it does so based on the subjective point of view of a few citizens — one of whom in this particular instance is running for office.

Freedom of Speech and Free Expression are the pillars of our society. When a select group of people try to silence voices, particularly historically marginalized voices, all of society suffers. It is even more concerning when it’s a politician or the state demanding censorship. It is a bookseller’s constitutional right to carry and sell books as they see fit, without interference from the government; a reader’s right to decide for themselves what they read; and a parent’s or guardian’s right to discuss with their children what they’re reading.

Importantly, even if attempts to shut down free expression like this fail, they may cause some booksellers to self-censor and not carry books for fear they may attract government censors.

The American Booksellers Association believes in protecting the rights of readers and the importance of representation in books. We condemn the current wave of book banning in schools and libraries occurring across the country that threatens both the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Stories that reflect love in its many forms and support diverse lifestyles are of the utmost importance right now. Silencing those voices just creates marginalization and discrimination.  It’s critical that young people of all experiences and identities see themselves reflected in books. It’s equally important that young people also see experiences and identities different from their own. Diversity in books promotes empathy, understanding, confidence, and growth. And isn’t that what we all, regardless of politics, want for our young people?

As ABFE has done since it was founded, we will continue to fight and support authors and booksellers who merely want to provide space for free thought. Free expression is the cornerstone of our democracy, so we must not let those who would shut down the freedom to read prevail.