Virginia Beach has battled over what books are too obscene for kids. Now the issue is going to court.
Every September, bookstores and libraries across the country put up displays for Banned Book Week.
At Prince Books in downtown Norfolk, the shelf with yellow crime scene tape stretched across titles like “The Color Purple” and “Fahrenheit 451” has been up since the spring.
When rumblings started about banning books in Virginia Beach months ago, shop owner Sarah Pishko put the display up early.
“I just decided this is crazy,” Pishko said. “People come up all the time and they love to talk about it or they're completely unaware of such an issue and we’ll have to explain it.”
Attempts to ban or restrict books - particularly those with LGBTQ themes - have mounted in the last year. Right-wing groups, parents and politicians across the nation target public and school libraries that stock books like “Gender Queer,” an illustrated memoir of a nonbinary teenager that includes sex scenes.
It’s been an ongoing topic in Virginia Beach schools. School board member Victoria Manning started pushing for the district to take certain books off library shelves late last year.
“Right now the majority of the public and parents… they don’t know that their children have access to these extremely pornographic books,” Manning said in a video posted on Facebook earlier this month.
Since the spring, the district removed at least three books from library shelves after challenges from parents over sexual content.
Now, Pishko and Prince Books have stepped directly into the book banning fight as one Virginia Beach man seeks to expand the restriction on two books.
Former Republican Congressional candidate Tommy Altman sued Barnes and Noble, Virginia Beach’s Public Library and the authors of two books - the aforementioned “Gender Queer,” and fantasy novel “A Court of Mist and Fury,” which includes sex scenes.
He’s asking a judge to stop the sale or lending of the books to minors without a parent’s consent because of their sexual content, which he calls obscene.
A Virginia Beach judge will hear the case Tuesday morning.
National trade groups of authors, publishers and booksellers as well as the ACLU and a few individual book shops around Virginia all signed onto filings in the case, saying the lawsuit would set a dangerous precedent.
“Too many people are going to decide which books should not be available to teenagers. I think there are lots of teenagers who need to have certain books around to read,” Pishko said. “No book is for everyone, and ‘Gender Queer’ is certainly not for everyone. But it has its merits. … I think that they are overreacting.”
Emily Lessig owns the Violet Fox Bookshop in Virginia Beach.
She does not believe her own business is endangered – and she’s not a party to the suit – but she said the suit threatened freedom of speech.
“Censorship of any kind is wrong,” she said, adding that targeting books involving the queer community would marginalize these people.
The impact of obscenity
The legal standard for whether content meets the definition of “obscenity” in Virginia has been evaluated by the courts based on local attitudes. In other words, what’s too much for one community may be totally acceptable in another.
But the book industry is afraid that Altman’s effort to restrict Barnes and Nobles' sales would reach beyond Virginia Beach’s borders.
In the filing, the book groups call the use of obscenity law to try to restrict access to books a violation of the First Amendment.
They worry that if the restraining order was granted, it would not only have a chilling effect on speech and sale of controversial books, but could lead some bookstores around the state to be charged with a crime if they sold the books in question.
“It's a slippery slope,” Pishko said. “Theoretically, it could be me next. I would hope not. But it could be me and others.”
Tim Anderson, an attorney and Republican delegate, is representing Altman.
Anderson said he isn’t trying to create a statewide standard for obscenity, just one for Virginia Beach.
But he argued that even under other more general standards, the content is too graphic.
"If it can't go on TV, it probably shouldn't be sold to minors,” Anderson said.
He likened the restriction his client is seeking to something like an R-rated movie ticket: You have to be of age to purchase one, but adults can buy them for underaged viewers.
"If a parent wants to go down and buy ‘A Court of Mist and Fury’ and give it to 16-year-old daughter as a birthday present, they would be allowed to do that even if we win,” Anderson said.
He said the lawsuit would allow parents to be the final arbiters of what their children can read.
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