Every year libraries across the country celebrate Banned Books Week, a chance for us to remember the dangers inherent in limiting a person’s ability to consume information due to a single person’s objection. But like all specially named weeks and months that benefit good causes – Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October and American Heart Month in February, to name two – it becomes easy to only focus on those issues during that timeframe. But intellectual freedom is threatened all year round, including this year in Virginia.
In early March, HB 516 passed both the House of Delegates and the Virginia Senate. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the bill “would allow parents to opt out of reading assignments deemed ‘sexually explicit’ by the Virginia Board of Education.” Why is this a problem?
Well, the Virginia Library Association lays out several points in response to the bill, and I encourage everyone to read what they have to say. What stands out to me is the fact that the bill encourages a small group of people (members of the Virginia Board of Education) to both review and pass judgment on a work of literature, with the outcome of labeling it “sexually explicit.” This is a problem because labeling is a form of censorship, and it encourages self-censorship. For example, some teachers may choose to avoid assigning important books because they are afraid of incurring the wrath of a single parent. Labeling is also a slippery slope that can lead to these labeled books being from schools and libraries. And what’s to stop future lawmakers from adding “racist themes,” “bad language” and “violence” to that list? If you check out the list of the most challenged and banned books that shaped America, many of them include these themes but all of them contribute to our collective knowledge and understanding of humanity.
On the other hand, parents have every right to limit their child’s exposure to any information. But while that is a right, the onus should lie on the parent, many of whom already have pathways through their school systems in place for choosing alternate titles for their children to read. The problem arises when you codify this into state law, which opens up opportunities for banning a book for every child across the state.
Proponents of the bill have consistently said that the bill does not condone banning books. But as we all know, the wording in a law can be bent and can set a precedent that can lead us down a slippery slope. The bottom line is that this bill is ripe with the possibility of unintended consequences.
Governor McAuliffe has a deadline to sign the bill into law or veto it. That means that this is not over. The VLA and the Virginia Association of Teachers of English have put out statements in opposition to the bill. And we all have the capability and responsibility to send our thoughts to the governor and our representatives. The deadline for the governor is Monday, April 11, at midnight, but he can choose to sign it any day. If you feel the need to contact him about this issue, whether in favor of the bill or against it, do so soon.
Books are powerful. They can offend just as easily as they can inspire. Some do both at the same time. But that is where their power lies. In forcing us to look at what makes us uncomfortable, we expand our awareness of how everyone lives, making us better human beings in the process.