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Maine Educators, Free Speech Advocates Decry Proposal To Limit 'Obscene' Books In Public Schools

Hannah Travis
Kennedy Library, Flickr, Creative Commons
A Banned Books Week installation at the Kennedy Library of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, California, on Monday, Sept. 24, 2018.

A bill proposed by a state lawmaker from New Gloucester could limit the distribution of books and other materials in public schools that are judged to be “obscene.” The measure drew opposition Monday morning from a host of free-speech advocates, teachers and librarians, who say they worry that that it could have a “chilling effect” on what schools are allowed to teach.

The original version of Republican state Rep. Amy Arata’s bill would have removed public schools from the list of institutions in Maine that can distribute “obscene” materials, to minors, for educational purposes. It would have effectively banned certain books and other materials in schools.

But at a hearing before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, Arata offered an amended version that she says would instead require students and their parents or guardians to give written consent before receiving any “obscene” materials distributed by a school.

Arata told the committee that she feels the legislation would protect students from possible harm from the materials, particularly those who may have suffered abuse in the past.

“This commonsense, bipartisan bill will give minors and parents the respect and dignity of choosing what is appropriate for them and their family. So that they do not have to feel embarrassed, harassed, or traumatized,” she says.

The amended wording of the bill drew supporters to the hearing, mostly parents and representatives of religious groups, such as Mike McClellan of the Christian Civic League of Maine.

“I think parent input is invaluable to ensure the health and safety of their child in these matters,” he says.

Yet free-speech advocates, teachers and librarians voiced serious concerns about the effect of the law on free-speech rights and academic freedom.

Cathy Potter, a school librarian from Falmouth, questioned how obscene materials would be defined, and expressed concern that several classic works, including books by Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Margaret Atwood, might be put into that category.

She also wonders about what the bill would mean for school librarians, and whether she might have to send home permission slips for students seeking to check out certain books.

“Who is going to decide what is obscene? Who is going to police this law in all of our schools across the state?” she says.

The bill would also amend the state’s criminal statutes, which some lawmakers and teachers worried could make teachers and schools potentially subject to prosecution and create a “chilling effect” on what is taught.

“The problem is that what is obscene to one person or group may be judged to have artistic or social merit to another. Criminalization of literary choices is a detriment to academic freedom,” says Claudette Brassil, a retired high school English teacher from Brunswick.

Other educators say they worry about the effect of the bill on other subjects, including sexual education.

And Vicki Wallack, the director of communications and government relations for the Maine School Management Association, says that there already is a process at the local level for residents to challenge materials that are used in the classroom. She says local school boards are ultimately the ones who balance the “learning value” of the material with the needs of the school, students and community.

“We believe this process is fair, inclusive, sensitive to local norms, and allows the public to raise concerns while protecting academic freedom,” she says.

The committee will take up some of these concerns next Monday, when it holds a work session on the measure.