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Virginia Governor Vetoes Bill to Block Sexually Explicit Books in School

Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday vetoed a bill that would have required schools to notify parents of any "sexually explicit" content in a class and offer an alternative. The bill was triggered by concern over Toni Morrison's Pulizter-winning novel "Beloved."

By Patrick Wilson

Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday vetoed a bill that would have required schools to notify parents of any "sexually explicit" content in a class and offer an alternative. The bill was triggered by concern over Toni Morrison's Pulizter-winning novel "Beloved."

McAuliffe in a statement said HB516 by Republican Del. Steve Landes of the Shenandoah Valley was unnecessary because the Virginia Board of Education has been examining the issue and because the label "sexually explicit" could be applied to a work based on one scene, without further context.

"Numerous educators, librarians, students, and others involved in the teaching process have expressed their concerns about the real-life consequences of this legislation's requirements," the statement said. 

A student in Fairfax County in 2013 said "Beloved" gave him night terrors and was "gross." The novel is about a former slave who kills her 2-year-old daughter rather than return her to slavery.

Republicans in the legislature singled out Morrison's books and one read from one on the state Senate floor in making a case for the bill. Anti-censorship advocates said they feared that rather than face hassle from parents year after year over "sexually explicit" books, teachers might avoid controversial but valuable works and simply use other books.

Landes said in a statement that he'd file the bill again next year if McAuliffe didn't ensure that a policy was created through the regulatory process.

"Governor McAuliffe's Board of Education has put this issue off for several years, which is why the families affected by this bill were seeking a legislative remedy," the statement said. "I hope the governor will push for these changes to be made through the regulatory process."

He also said the proposal is common sense.

"Parents make decisions every day about what video games kids play, what movies they watch, and what material they consume online. They should have the same opportunity within the classroom."

In statements, Anna Scholl, executive director of liberal group ProgressVa, called the bill a waste of the legislature's time and an attempt "to ban important works of African-American literature from classrooms." Victoria Cobb, president of the conservative Family Foundation, said McAuliffe showed little respect for parents with the veto.

"This bill would simply have ensured that when it comes to the materials parents' kids are being taught, they have the information they need to make those decisions wisely."

Many school divisions already have such notification policies in place. The bill would have required the state Board of Education to create a policy requiring schools to notify parents of any sexually explicit content in a class, and offer an alternative.

"We have long entrusted curriculum management to our local school boards," McAuliffe's statement said. "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. School boards are also most knowledgeable about those materials that will best position our students to succeed in Advanced Placement and other college preparatory programs."

During debate on the bill in the Senate, Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham County, read from Morrison's novel "The Bluest Eye." The nature of the reading prompted other senators to ask him to stop, and Sen. John Cosgrove of Chesapeake said it was "one of the worst" speeches he'd heard in the Senate. "I'm ashamed," he said.

A coalition of free speech groups sent McAuliffe a letter in March urging a veto.

"Singling out material with a certain type of content inevitably creates a biased perspective and casts a negative light on the material regardless of its educational value. The bill is silent on what content would be labelled 'sexually explicit,' or how that term would be defined," the letter said. On its face, the letter said, the bill could apply to a multitude of classic literature.

The bill passed the Senate 22-17 and the House of Delegates 77-21.

(c)2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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