March 14, 2016

Virginia’s “Beloved bill” would let parents block sexually explicit literature in the classroom


belovedIn 2013, the Washington Post’s T. Rees Shapiro profiled Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County, Virginia parent, whose son, Blake Murphy, was assigned Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved for his senior-year AP English class.

The book, which has moments of sexual explicitness and brutal violence, gave Blake night terrors. “It was disgusting and gross,” he told the Post.

Blake’s mother was shocked that her son had been subjected to Morrison’s novel and sought to have it removed from the AP English curriculum:

“To me, mature references means slavery or the Holocaust,” Laura Murphy said. “I’m not thinking my kid is going to be reading a book with bestiality.”

Murphy (who wrote an op-ed for the Post outlining her position shortly after the original story was published) lost the fight against the Fairfax County School Board. But that wasn’t the end of her battle against Beloved, or—in her words—her fight for “transparency, consistency, and choice.”

Last month, the Washington Post’s Jenna Portnoy reported that over the last three years, Murphy had come a long way in her quest. After failing to persuade the school board,

[Murphy] took her cause to the state Board of Education, which began deliberating whether to amend state regulations. While she waited for her idea to clear procedural hurdles, Murphy said that she lobbied legislators for a new law.

That law is Virginia House Bill 516, which, according to the News Virginian’s Louis Llovio, “would force schools to notify parents if material used in class includes sexually explicit content.” Parents would have the right to opt their children out of any sexually explicit material, and the children’s teacher would have to assign something less objectionable.

HB 516, which has been nicknamed the “Beloved bill,” was introduced by Virginia Republicans William J. Howell and Steven Landes on January 9; it passed the House in February and the Senate earlier this month. Governor Terry McAuliffe has until April 11 to either veto the bill or sign it into law, and so far, he hasn’t indicated what he’s planning to do.

The bill has attracted national attention. According to the Post, if McAuliffe doesn’t block the bill, Virginia would become “the first state in the country to allow parents to block their children from reading books in school that contain sexually explicit material.” And it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

The question of what is and isn’t “sexually explicit” is also salient here. On March 8, the National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter to McAuliffe—signed by everyone from the American Booksellers for Free Expression to the PEN American Center to National Council of Teachers of English—urging the governor to veto the bill. According to the letter,

The bill is silent on what content would be labelled “sexually explicit,” or how that term would be defined. On its face, however, the term is vague and could apply to a great deal of classic and contemporary literature, including Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, the Bible, and most works by William Shakespeare.

We’ll know soon enough whether the United States is on its way to a book-banning epidemic parental oversight epidemic, or if the effort to keep kids away from the shocking, sordid world of Chaucer will have begun and ended in Virginia.

But no matter what McAuliffe decides, Murphy has already won her war. According to the Post, the Fairfax County school system has changed its rules: it now informs parents if their kids are reading “sexually explicit” books. In other words, no more Beloved without prior notification.



Mark Krotov was a senior editor at Melville House.