Virginia Governor Vetoes Bill Restricting Student Access to Books

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Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has vetoed a bill that free speech groups feared would have a chilling effect on the selection of books taught in the state’s public schools. In March, American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) joined a letter urging McAuliffe to veto House Bill 516.

H.B. 516 required teachers in elementary and secondary schools to notify parents when students would be reading books containing “sexually explicit” content. If a parent objected, the school would have been required to provide the student with “nonexplicit instructional material and related academic activities.”

In their letter to McAuliffe, ABFE and the National Coalition Against Censorship argued that the term “sexually explicit” was not defined and could apply to a wide range of books that are currently taught. They also warned that an isolated passage from a work might be used to judge the whole book. The letter was joined by the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the National Council of Teachers of English, PEN American Center, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

In his veto message, McAuliffe acknowledged concern about the potential chilling effect of the law. “This legislation lacks flexibility and would require the label of ‘sexually explicit’ to apply to an artistic work based on a single scene,” he said.

McAuliffe also expressed his belief that local school boards should continue to make decisions in this area. “School boards are best positioned to ensure that our students are exposed to those appropriate literary and artistic works that will expand students’ horizons and enrich their learning experiences,” he said.

Almost half of Virginia school districts require teachers to warn parents of “potentially sensitive or controversial material in the classroom.”

H.B. 516 was introduced by Republican members of the legislature in response to lobbying by the mother of a high school senior who was assigned to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved in an Advanced Placement English class. The mother, Laura Murphy, was also unhappy that her son had been asked to read Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Murphy said that the bill was a logical extension of an existing policy that allows parents to prevent their children from participating in sex education classes.