Virginia's Republican-controlled Senate approved a bill Tuesday that would force schools to notify parents if their children will be assigned to read books with sexually explicit content, a policy that opponents called the first step toward censorship in schools.
The bill passed with a 22-17 vote after a spirited debate during which a supporter read a rape scene from Toni Morrison's “The Bluest Eye” before one of his colleagues asked him to stop because the Senate pages were in the chamber.
“I think that makes my point, doesn't it?” Republican Sen. Tom Garrett replied.
The measure backed by Republican House Speaker William Howell would direct the state Board of Education to develop a policy requiring schools to warn parents if they plan to teach such books and provide an alternative if the parent objects. It's being pushed by a Fairfax County mother who protested the use of “Beloved” in her son's high school senior class several years ago.
The measure unanimously passed in Virginia's House of Delegates last month. It faces at least one more vote in the lower chamber before going to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe because of minor changes made in the Senate.
A spokesman for McAuliffe has declined to say whether he supports the bill.
If it's enacted, this would be the first state law in the U.S. forcing schools to notify parents about explicit material, a library expert said.
Democratic Sen. Janet Howell said passing the bill would make Virginia look “ridiculous,” noting that Morrison has won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature. Sen. Adam Ebbin, another Democrat, said Virginia would be taking the “first step toward encouraging censorship.”
“To simplify these literary classics into specific enumerations of sexually explicit content without contextualizing or discussing them in their totality robs the students of thematic richness and historical context for which these works are valued,'' Ebbin said.
Opponents, including Democratic Sen. A. Donald McEachin, also noted that schools already have the power to put these policies in place. About half of Virginia school districts that responded to a state survey in 2013 said they require parents to be notified if their children will be exposed to potentially sensitive or controversial material.
“I am distressed that we would remove from local school districts the ability to make the best decision and policy for their districts,” McEachin said.
McEachin also noted that students taking advanced literature courses make a conscious decision to tackle advanced topics.
“Let’s not deprive our students of knowledge, history and context,” he said. “This bill is a step backwards.”
But supporters said they believe all parents should get a say in whether their children are exposed to such graphic content, which they argue can corrupt teen minds. Republican Sen. Bill Carrico compared evil to a lion cub.
“It may be playful and harmless in the beginning but you feed that evil and it grows, and if you encourage the feeding of that evil it's going to grow into a lion and it's going to eat you,'' he said.