RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday vetoed a bill that would have made Virginia the first state to allow parents to block their children from reading books in school that contain sexually explicit material.
The measure became known in the General Assembly as the “Beloved” bill because supporters have cited that seminal work of fiction by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison as an example of a book too graphic for some students.
The legislation would have required K-12 teachers to identify classroom materials with “sexually explicit content” and notify parents, who would have been able to “opt out” their children and request that the teacher give them an alternative assignment.
McAuliffe (D) said a state law is “unnecessary” because the Virginia Board of Education is considering changing state policy to accommodate parents’ concerns.
“School boards are best positioned to ensure that our students are exposed to those appropriate literary and artistic works that will expand students’ horizons and enrich their learning experiences,” he said in the veto message.
Opponents of the bill have said the approach could lead to book banning — a claim McAuliffe did not address, despite his criticism that the legislation would brand a book as unacceptable because of a few potentially troubling scenes, ignoring its overall value.
“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,” he said.
But Republican supporters of the bill say parents have a right to control materials to which their children are exposed, even if the books are considered classics.
Del. R. Steven Landes (R-
Augusta), chairman of the House Education Committee, sponsored the bill at the request of House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), making it a top priority for the overwhelmingly Republican House.
Landes called the veto “disappointing” and said he would introduce the legislation again next year if the state doesn’t change the regulations.
“Parents make decisions every day about what video games kids play, what movies they watch, and what material they consume online,” he said in a statement. “They should have the same opportunity within the classroom.”
Supporters do not appear to have enough votes to override the governor’s veto this year.
During the recent legislative session, Democrats in the House joined Republicans to vote for the bill in a block of other uncontested pieces of legislation. But as opponents expressed concerns, many Democrats voted no when it came back to their chamber for a second look. In the Senate, the only Democrat to join Republicans in voting for it was Sen. Lynwood W. Lewis Jr. (Accomack).
Anna Scholl, executive director of Progress Virginia, a progressive advocacy group, sent lawmakers who opposed the bill copies of Morrison’s novels before the vote.
“Thank goodness this ridiculous crusade against great works of literature is finally over,” she said Monday.
The bill stemmed from a complaint made by Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County woman who said she was horrified to discover that one of her sons, a high school senior, was reading “Beloved” in his Advanced Placement English class.
“It is unfortunate that the governor ignored the bipartisan support from lawmakers who agree that parents have a fundamental right to make decisions about the education of their children,” Murphy said in reaction to the veto.
The National Council of Teachers of English and the National Coalition Against Censorship opposed the bill; the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia favored it.
About half of Virginia school districts require teachers to give parents warning of “potentially sensitive or controversial materials in the classroom,” according to a 2013 survey by the state Department of Education.