On Monday, a Virginia judge threw out a Republican-brought suit that attempted to place a statewide ban on two books through an arcane obscenity law.
The suit against Barnes & Noble, brought by Republican state Del. Tim Anderson on behalf of former Republican state congressional candidate Tommy Altman, argued that two books that have been the target of widespread conservative attacks should be declared in violation of an old obscenity law — and that, in a step beyond previous GOP book banning campaigns, the books should be banned from being sold or shared throughout the entirety of the state.
Judge Pamela Baskervill ruled that the obscenity law that Anderson had attempted to use to ban the books is “unconstitutional on its face” and that it couldn’t be used to implement a book ban; such laws are almost never used in modern legal contexts.
The Republican stunt was yet another in the far right’s campaign to ban and censor books, which they are waging in part to litigate and politicize the existence of Black and LGBTQ people, along with other marginalized groups. Anderson has said that he is considering appealing Baskervill’s decision.
One of the books that Anderson and Altman sought to ban, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, is a graphic novel concerning the author’s nonbinary identity. The other, A Court of Mist and Fury, is a novel in a young adult series by Sarah J. Maas and depicts sexual scenes between straight characters.
The Republicans said they believe the books shouldn’t be read by children — though experts say that Republican hand-wringing over books, especially ones with LGBTQ themes or nonwhite characters, is just a vehicle of white supremacy and fascism.
“When you’re asking a court to make a ruling in criminal law that has the result of restricting the sale of a book — that’s censorship,” Barnes & Noble’s attorney, Bob Corn-Revere, said in court on Tuesday.
Anderson has argued that books should come with a rating system like that of movies or video games, though his suit to ban the books is perhaps a better show of his intentions. Republicans have also waged bigoted attempts to manipulate TV rating systems to add warnings for “disturbing” LGBTQ content.
Even without discriminatory categorizations that would stigmatize LGBTQ people, media ratings systems have been criticized in the past by LGBTQ advocates who say they’re used in a way that’s biased against LGBTQ people; a similar system for books could end up being used the same way.
“There is a movement spreading around the country that seeks to make this a political wedge issue, trying to cast books with any sexual content whatsoever as legally obscene,” Jonathan Friedman, PEN America director of free expression and education, told Slate. “It’s a small group of people trying to decide what everyone should have access to.”
Opponents of the case have said that they’re pleased with the ruling and the fact that the judge ruled not only against the case but the law itself, which could potentially deter similar cases from being brought.
“The First Amendment protects literary expression, even when some people find portions of the works difficult or objectionable,” Matt Calahan, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union Virginia, told Motherboard. “All people should be able to choose what they wish to read.”
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