Kansas Legislature Considers Bill to 'Review' School-Assigned Books

TOPEKA, Kan. — Banned Books Week is still about six months away, but that hasn't stopped the Kansas House of Representatives from considering a bill originally offered by Sen. Karin Brownlee, which has already passed the state Senate, that would force local school boards to oversee the selection of assigned "supplemental classroom materials" to determine if any of them are "obscene."

Yes, the state where a Kansas City grand jury actually indicted a Halloween costume as "obscene" may yet bend to the will of the 500 Topeka residents who petitioned the legislature to remove 14 "vulgar" novels from existing high school reading lists, including Toni Morrison's "Beloved" and Cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Horses."

Morrison makes the American Library Association's (ALA) list of "Most Frequently Challenged Authors" almost every year, and "Beloved" made 2007's list when a number of censors claimed the novel was "unsuited to [its] age group" because of "sexual content" and "offensive language."

Although the Kansas petitioners' list of "vulgar" novels was not readily available, the ALA notes that 2005's Most Frequently Challenged Authors were Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, Chris Crutcher, Robie Harris, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Toni Morrison, J. D. Salinger, Lois Lowry, Marilyn Reynolds and Sonya Sones.

Seems Brownlee has heard about the Supreme Court's failure to establish a national standard for obscenity, and argued to the House Education Committee that, "what's acceptable in San Francisco may not be in Kansas," and that they therefore should "let the school board set the community standard."

The ALA disagrees with that concept, noting in its Intellectual Freedom Manual that, "Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate; and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium used, the content of the work and the viewpoints of both the author and receiver of information. Freedom to express oneself through a chosen mode of communication, including the internet, becomes virtually meaningless if access to that information is not protected. Intellectual freedom implies a circle, and that circle is broken if either freedom of expression or access to ideas is stifled."

Indeed, Brownlee faced several opponents of the proposed "review" system, including Rep. Judith Loganbill (D-Wichita) who argued that "school boards don't have time to review every piece of outside material that a teacher might want to use," and attorney (and parent) Connie Owen, who charged that the measure would have "a chilling effect on academic freedom and the ability of teachers to bring material into a classroom that wasn't part of an approved curriculum."

Brownlee responded that her bill would not change the state's obscenity laws, nor affect any teacher's defense against prosecution — not that any have yet been charged with, much less convicted of, bringing obscene materials into a classroom.

As of the end of its meeting today, the House Education Committee took no action on the proposed bill.