Virginia Bill Requires Educators to Offer Alternative Book Option Upon Request

The protests of one mom, who didn't want her son reading Toni Morrison's "Beloved," led to legislation that would require an "opt-out" option for assigned literature.
EH160331-Beloved-censored Updated April 4, 2016: Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has vetoed this bill. In his veto message, McAuliffe said a state law is “unnecessary” because the Virginia Board of Education is considering changing state policy to account for parents’ concerns. He also voiced the criticism that the bill did not allow for weighing a book's contribution or worth as a whole. What began as one parent’s concern for the type of reading material her teen was assigned in class has evolved into a sweeping statewide call-to-action in Virginia. When Laura Murphy’s son was assigned the 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, she decided the book’s mature-themed content called for an opt-out option. According to James LaRue, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, Murphy attempted to have the book removed completely from the curriculum. When her attempts were unsuccessful, she then began to push for a bill requiring all English teachers to provide a list of assigned books to parents. That bill quickly turned into a unanimous vote in the subcommittee, eventually leading to the passing of the bill 9 to 6, with every Republican voting yes and the majority of Democrats voting no. The implications of the bill, which still has the chance to be vetoed by Governor Terry McAuliffe until April 10, will require educators to create a separate curriculum for students who request an alternative choice of literature to read. This may potentially burden already overworked instructors. "You can wind up putting so much pressure on the teacher, [who already] has to do these long lists. [They] will say, ‘I'm just not going to go through the bother of creating an alternative title. I'll just find something that doesn't have any sex in it,’” said LaRue. “This is [the] chilling effect, right?” said LaRue. “This amounts to where it gets so burdensome. You have to go through this defense of literature to every class of parents. I think that's what the person was seeking here: back-door censorship. Finding a way to remove the book.” Another point opponents bring up is the ages of the students reading the books. The titles in question are typically assigned to students age 16 or 17 in advanced placement courses. At the time of Murphy’s objection, Beloved was being taught in a course with a syllabus noting that the books listed might have strong language, violence, and sexual content. “We can’t just lump all children together as if they are four years old,” said LaRue. He contends school is the safest environment for teens to talk through tough subjects. Those against the bill also argue that the definition of what constitutes “sexually explicit” material is unclear. Peter Hart, communications director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said “sexually explicit content” is indefinable. Republican Senator Charles Carrico Sr. wholeheartedly disagrees, calling Beloved “despicable.” Carrico characterized the book as a “seed that will eat you,” maintaining that reading about things at an impressionable age can cause them to be acted out later on. “The language that is used [in Beloved],” said Carrico, “A kid would get expelled from school if they spoke it out loud in public. I don't feel like [that’s] an appropriate book to have in the school system.” In Democratic Delegate Alfonso Lopez's opposing view, "Literature professors everywhere are weeping about the prospects of this legislation."

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