By: Rebecca Slocum
On February 11th, a recently proposed censorship bill regarding the current obscenity law in Maine was unanimously voted “ought not to pass”, marking a win for intellectual freedom fighters everywhere.
Representative Amy Arata. R- New Gloucester, sought to change the Maine law regarding distribution of obscene materials to minors after her high school aged son was assigned the 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. The story follows 15 year old Kafka, as he attempts to escape a curse set upon him by his father, and the elderly Nakata, a victim of a tragic childhood accident that leaves him unable to recall previous events or make new memories. The book received a host of awards, including World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2006, and was on the New York Times list of 10 best books of 2005 for a translation.
After reading the book, Rep. Arata contested its placement in the classroom to the school board (of which she is a member) about the overly graphic sexual scenes depicted in the book. She stated that the book is “just full of vulgarities,” including a rape scene “which is depicted as desirable for both parties” as well as “other scenes that were very, very graphic — just pornography, basically.” The book was ultimately removed from the curriculum. However, Rep. Arata did not stop there.
Maine’s Obscenity Law
Currently, Maine’s obscenity law (Title 17, Chapter 93-A., Section 2911) contains an exemption for noncommercial dissemination or exhibition “for purely educational purposes by any library, art gallery, museum, public school, private school or institutions of higher learning, nor to any commercial distribution or exhibition by any art gallery or museum.” Obscene materials are defined as those that “lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” and “depict or describe, in a patently offensive manner, ultimate sexual acts, excretory functions, masturbation or lewd exhibition of the genitals.”
The public school exemption is based on the assurance that teachers strive to incorporate materials that reflect literary, artistic, political, or scientific merit. They select materials to help students learn more about themselves and the world around them. If those materials happen to contain obscene content, it is likely that either those sections of the book are inconsequential and do not make up the entirety of the story or they are essential to the story line and serve to highlight the overall themes of the book. Either situation allows for some grace in selecting these materials for a school setting.
LD 94: An Act to Prohibit the Dissemination of Obscene Materials by Public Schools
Rep. Arata’s proposed bill, LD 94, would have eliminated the public school exemption, which could open the door for a teacher or administrator assigning a book that was deemed “obscene” to be charged with a Class C felony offense; if found guilty, they could face jail time. Rep. Arata stated that she was not attempting to criminalize the act of assigning controversial books; rather, she was trying to establish a rule of providing written consent for parents so that they are aware if their children are ingesting questionable content. However, when her bill was put to a vote, it still contained the criminal component.
The Dangers of LD 94
Now, I’ve not read Kafka on the Shore. I have no idea if its assignation in a high school classroom warrants concern or if this is a case of one or two sections taken out of context. Certainly, some books do not belong in a school setting. However, I don’t think that’s the main concern here.
The attempt to pass LD 94 into law is a clear example of why censorship is so dangerous. Whether or not it contained the criminalization aspect, this bill, had it been voted into law, would essentially be red flagging books that contained potentially obscene content. Who would be responsible for policing which books are considered obscene? The decisions would be purely subjective, based on the opinions of parents and community members. And how obscene would it need to be to require consent/legal action? Would the law affect classics such as The Great Gatsby? The Color Purple? Or the works of Shakespeare? Where would we draw the line?
As is typical in most cases of book challenges, I don’t think Rep. Arata’s true aim with this bill was censorship, but rather protecting children from what she considers objectionable and challenging content. However, in her concern for children, I don’t think she stopped to consider the consequences of what LD 94 could entail.
What if The Diary of Anne Frank was boiled down to the few passages of Anne’s imagery about her body? We’d miss her beautiful story that depicts not just her tragically short life, but of the loneliness of adolescence and her attempt to see the beauty of the world from the tiny annex. To point to a more recent example, what if Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson was boiled down to the depiction of rape? We’d miss the more prominent themes of female empowerment, communication, and the long lasting effects of sexual violence. The messages from both of these books are relevant and necessary to today’s teens. Narrowing the scope of a book to just the so-called obscene content limits the entire understanding and appreciation of the book.
Thankfully, in regards to LD 94, Maine legislators agreed. Hopefully, Rep. Arata will reconsider her attempts to pass a bill of this nature and, instead, seek to understand and appreciate challenging and controversial materials, especially those in a school setting, for what they are: a way for those who are underrepresented to see themselves on the page in a way they might not have previously; a way to open the lines of communication with the people around us; and maybe, just maybe, a way to learn something by viewing the world through a new lens.
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.