Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed a bill Monday that would force schools to warn parents if their children will be assigned books with sexually explicit content, saying it's unnecessary and lacks flexibility in labeling literary works.
The Democratic governor said the bill isn't needed because the state Board of Education is already examining such a policy. He also said curriculum management should be left to local school boards, which he said are best positioned to make decisions about their students.
"Open communication between parents and teachers is important, and school systems have an obligation to provide age-appropriate material for students," McAuliffe said. "However, this legislation lacks flexibility and would require the label of 'sexually explicit' to apply to an artistic work based on a single scene, without further context."
The measure, which is backed by GOP House Speaker William Howell, was brought to the General Assembly by a Fairfax County mother who protested the use of Toni Morrison's 'Beloved' in her son's high school senior class. The 1987 novel set in the post-Civil War era includes scenes depicting sex, rape and bestiality.
The bill initially flew through the GOP-controlled House with unanimous support. But outcry from Democrats and free-speech groups grew as the bill received more attention. The 22-17 vote in the Senate means there's likely not enough support to override the governor's veto in that chamber.
James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association, has said that Virginia would be the first state in the country with such a law.
The bill would direct the state Board of Education to create a policy on sexually explicit books for elementary and secondary schools. Under the policy, schools would be required to provide an alternative to the sexually explicit book if a parent objects.
Republican Del. Steve Landes, who sponsored the bill on the speaker's behalf, called McAuliffe's veto disappointing and vowed to reintroduce the bill next year if the Board of Education doesn't act on its own.
"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," Landes said in a statement.
Opponents questioned how the state would define "sexually explicit" material and said they fear the measure would apply to a wide range of literature, including Anne Frank's "The Dairy of a Young Girl" and most of William Shakespeare's works.
"Many, if not most, parents want their children to receive a comprehensive education that includes books like these, and they rely on teachers to select materials that best promote educational goals and prepare students for college and life beyond," the Washington-DC based National Coalition Against Censorship and other groups wrote in a letter to McAuliffe, urging him to veto the bill.
Many Virginia school districts already require parents to be notified if their children will be exposed to potentially sensitive material. The Virginia Board of Education has been considering a statewide policy, but supporters said they decided to go to the General Assembly because the process was taking too long.