Good Intentions Don’t Make a Bad Law Better

A few months ago, a Maine lawmaker’s 12th grade son was assigned to read a graphic novel in school: Kafka on the Shore. It’s not an obscure book. It won the World Fantasy Award in 2006, appeared on the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2005, and has received a fair bit of acclaim.

It also contains explicit depictions of sex and rape.

The lawmaker was shocked by the assigned reading, and so she decided to do something about it, proposing LD 94, a bill which would make it illegal to provide obscene material to children in school. (Which has since been amended to make it so educators must alert parents that materials have objectionable content, and parents have to opt in to let their children access it.) Educators who fail to do so can be charged with a Class C felony, which carries a sentence of up to 5 years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

A few comments. First, I have not read the book in question. Frankly, I don’t think the specific book in question should enter into the discussion, since this isn’t a proposed law to declare Kafka on the Shore an obscene work. Rather, we need to look at what this law would do and what its implications would be.

I get very uncomfortable the moment laws start bandying around words like “obscene.” Maine already has a law prohibiting the dissemination of obscene materials to minors. (It has an exception for materials that are provided for educational purposes, so it exempts libraries, public school, universities, etc. from that law. This amendment looks to take “public school” off the list of educational exemptions, which is ironic.) In the law, “obscene” is defined as material which:

(1) To the average individual, applying contemporary community standards, with respect to what is suitable material for minors, considered as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
(2) Depicts or describes, in a patently offensive manner, ultimate sexual acts, excretory functions, masturbation or lewd exhibition of the genitals; and
(3) Considered as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

(And never mind that Kafka on the Shore wouldn’t qualify as obscene under this guideline, because as I said, this isn’t about the book in question. It’s about the greater implications of the law.)

This definition is hard to meet, making it really only applicable in blatant cases of obscenity. That’s just fine by me, because I have seen far too many examples of times when someone else’s definition of “obscene” was far different than my own. (True story: when I worked at Orem Public Library, there were numerous times people came to the desk wondering why we didn’t put ratings on the books. “Just like with movies.” They wanted some restricted so that certain ages couldn’t check them out. Pro tip: asking a librarian to start censoring the collection or limiting it in anyway is a good way to get ignored. We’re kind of all about freedom of information.)

In the end, this bill is unnecessary and a huge overreach. It’s using a bazooka to solve a simple problem. There are already mechanisms in place for individual schools to have books challenged and decided on at a local level. There’s no need to blow up the entire system of how things work in public schools just because one parent didn’t like the way that system worked. The Maine Library Association spoke out strongly against this bill, and I’m 100% in agreement with them.

I have nothing against people deciding what sort of things they do and do not want their family to read, watch, or listen to. I was assigned a book my senior year of high school (Rabbit, Run, by John Updike). As I read it, I was uncomfortable with its depictions of sex. I went to my teacher and asked for an alternative assignment. She gave me Quentin Durward, instead. It was great. No big fuss needed. No big hullabaloo made. When it comes to my approach as a parent, I keep an eye on what my kids read and watch. I have conversations with them about things they’re consuming. I’m an active part in it. These days, my experience leads me to believe parents should be far more worried about what their kids can see online than what they’re getting in school. But if there is something that comes up that makes a family or student uncomfortable, there’s a system to challenge it.

Here’s hoping this bill comes to a quick and painless end.

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