Censorship or parental control? Va. lawmakers divided on bill

WASHINGTON — Virginia’s House of Delegates could take a final vote Monday on a bill that would require schools to notify parents of any potentially sexually explicit classroom material and require that schools offer an alternative for the students of any parents who opt out.

Opponents of the bill said it amounts to censorship in schools. Supporters said it is simply a requirement to keep parents informed and in control.

“This does not prohibit any teacher from assigning any type of material they deem necessary or appropriate. It does not ban books. It does not ban any materials that teachers or school systems would like to have on their reading list and the like. It doesn’t do that,” the bill’s patron Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, said Friday.

“This legitimately addresses a legitimate concern that parents raised,” he said.

Del. Dave Albo, R-Springfield, described the bill as a compromise that strikes a “fair balance.”

“I think that 99.99999 percent of the parents in Virginia would like to know if someone assigned a book that has scenes about sexual abuse of a child and infected sexual battery,” Albo said.

Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, said that even though this year’s bill set for a final vote is narrower than the bill that was vetoed by Gov. Terry McAuliffe last year, there would still be “significant unintended consequences and problems.”

“More than likely, a teacher will not be able to do two entire lesson plans for the same class, sometimes on a very quick turnaround, after an objection from just one parent. This makes it much less likely that they’d be willing to even attempt to use anything that might be considered objectionable in their lessons,” Lopez said.

He said it would be a form of censorship that could limit all kinds of classic art and literature.

“For a junior taking AP English and learning iambic pentameter, what is less objectionable literary work that is the equivalent to any of Shakespeare’s plays?” Lopez said.

“Most importantly, what is an equivalent work to Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved,’ which teaches us in a very raw and unflinching manner and terms about the horrors of slavery?” he added.

The bill was originally triggered by a Fairfax County mother who protested the use of “Beloved” in her son’s class when he was a senior in high school.

Lopez and Del. Vivian Watts, D-Annandale, warned of a potential black eye for Virginia’s reputation if the bill passes, and it becomes widely reported or mentioned on late-night TV.

Lopez cited the widespread reaction to the recent move in Accomac, Virginia, to pull “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” following a parent’s complaint.

“Why am I saying ‘these books would be banned’ with such surety? Because in this litigious society that we live in, particularly in large school divisions, you aren’t going to take the chance that someone is going to object,” Watts said.

“We will end up with excluding for all what might be objectionable to just a few,” she added.

The bill advanced Friday on a voice vote to a final vote that is expected on Monday. The bill would then go to the state Senate.

Del. Nicholas Freitas, R-Culpeper, said this is simply a service for parents.

“I don’t care how many Pulitzer Prizes it has. If it’s sexually explicit material, that might be something — as a parent — that I want to be notified of,” Freitas said.

Read the proposed bill on the Virginia General Assembly website.

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