By: Guest contributor John K. Wilson
Ohio State Representative Reggie Stoltzfus (R-Paris Township) chose an unusual way to celebrate Banned Books Week this year: he contacted Kent State University to demand that they ban a book he claimed was “porn.” When Kent State refused to violate the First Amendment and its policies on academic freedom, Stoltzfus threatened to cut millions of dollars in retaliation, and hopes to pass legislation imposing his views on public universities.
This shocking act of censorship received no national media attention, even though it’s one of the most dramatic examples of the power of conservative cancel culture to repress free expression.
The controversy began when a 17-year-old high school student enrolled in a course at Kent State University, “College Writing 1: Social Issues Through Anime.” The main textbook for the course is “Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation” by Susan J. Napier, and it includes a chapter on “Controlling Bodies: The Body in Pornographic Anime.”
The student wrote to the professor that the book made him uncomfortable and went against his “moral obligations,” and asked for an alternative assignment. The professor responded that there was no alternative text to the main textbook for the course, and when the student refused to do the reading, he received a zero for his reading assignment.
The student’s parents contacted state Rep. Stoltzfus, who was outraged by the book: “It’s sexually explicit with acts of sex that are unimaginable – pictures and descriptions. Somebody with a twisted mind conjured it up.” According to Stoltzfus, “The content forwarded to me was atrocious. It’s got sexual violence, things you can’t imagine in the text that no mind should see, especially a minor.” Stoltzfus didn’t respond to my questions about exactly what offended him, but the book summarizes the content in some anime movies: “the Twin Dolls are tied up and hung over the pit of hell with their legs splayed open while the chief demon, an enormous figure with a penis the size of a baseball bat, tortures and taunts them.” In another movie, “nude bodies of women are scattered everywhere, their vaginas covered in blood.” The book is certainly not an endorsement of these movies, since it refers to “appallingly violent films” with “disturbingly frequent scenes” that “privilege the image of the female body in pain, usually with graphic scenes of the torture and mutilation of women.” A critique and analysis of sexual content is not porn.
In 2001, Entertainment Weekly reviewed the original edition of the textbook, calling it “too scholarly” and accusing the book of “antiseptic dryness.” So, yeah, probably not porn.
Yet a book that is clearly not porn was widely reported to be porn. The Tennessee Star even headlined its story, “Kent State University Assigns Anime Porn to High School Minor.”
Stoltzfus initially only wanted an exception made for the student. However, the waiver for high school students to take a class at Kent State includes an explicit warning that adult material may be required and no changes to course content will be made.
So Stoltzfus decided that his real goal was to ban the book entirely: “I reached out to Kent State University to ask them to remove the content from the curriculum. I told their government affairs official I want it removed by Monday, and it’s a brick wall. No one’s contacted me and said ‘We’re going to work with you on this.’ They have not reached out. They’re not going to remove it from the curriculum.”
Stoltzfus declared that he would punish Kent State University by cutting millions of dollars in state funding:
“I let the university know that the material is unacceptable and apparently they think it is acceptable so if it’s acceptable, all my friends in the general assembly are going to receive a copy of this book courtesy of me, and we’re gonna look through this book, and we’re gonna decide if this university is worthy of giving 150 million dollars of taxpayer dollars to it every year,”Rep. Reggie Stolzfus
On October 6, 2020, Stoltzfus wrote a letter to Kent State along with state Rep. Don Jones, chair of the House Primary and Secondary Education Committee and one of five Representatives on the Joint Education Oversight Committee.
Rep. Jones declared, “We spend millions of dollars a year on mental health, suicide awareness and prevention, sexual abuse issues – yet this is the type of the stuff we are exposing children to. And we wonder why we struggle with these issues; we are planting the seed.” This is an incredibly stupid and dangerous idea. If any art, music, books, theater, or films that discuss sexual abuse are to be banned, it would require massive repression–and it makes the actual problems of sexual abuse worse, not better, when the discussion and analysis of sexual abuse is forbidden.
Stoltzfus noted, “This isn’t about ‘educational freedom’ or censorship. I’m not suggesting that minors – or, for that matter, any students – enrolled at Kent State be coddled in safe spaces or shielded from the truths, triumphs and tragedies of history. But I am saying students should never be forced to study pornography in order to pass a class.” Like many censors, Stoltzfus claims to be opposed to censorship at precisely the same time that he demands it. He thinks his personal dislike of pornography should justify a ban on it at every public institution.
The kind of repression committed by these state legislators has a chilling effect on the entire campus and indeed all public higher education. Will administrators be tempted to punish professors at the command of powerful politicians? Will faculty and students start censoring themselves, either out of fear of being punished or simply because they do not wish to cause financial harm to their university if they dare to express something controversial that offends a politician?
Kent State issued a statement asserting that it defends the basic principles of academic freedom and free expression: “Faculty have academic freedom to communicate ideas for discussion and learning to fulfill the course objectives.” Legally and morally, that’s the only stand it could take. But it may suffer the consequences from vengeful politicians angry that their demands for book banning have not been obeyed.
The Alliance Review noted that censoring the book would be “a disservice to all other students in the course, who are surely capable of mature, sober, intellectual study of an area of culture — anime — that continues to be influential and worthy of consideration.”
Sometimes, we must defend academic freedom to protect horrific ideas in order to assure free expression. But in cases like Kent State, we must defend intellectual freedom to protect perfectly normal academic work from the threats of ignorant politicians. In a free university, and in a free society, we do not ban books, and we do not allow politicians to threaten to cut millions of dollars in funding unless books are banned.
John K. Wilson is contributing editor at AcademeBlog.org, and a 2019-20 fellow at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.