Library groups this week joined with booksellers, publishers, and public advocacy groups in sounding the alarm over a lawsuit in Virginia in which two popular authors and their publishers have been ordered to defend their works against obscenity charges.
The legal action was filed last month by Virginia Beach lawyer and delegate in the Virginia Assembly Tim Anderson (on behalf of local plaintiff and congressional candidate Tommy Altman), citing an obscure state obscenity law. It alleges that two books for sale in a Virginia Beach Barnes & Noble—Maia Kobabe’s popular graphic memoir Gender Queer (Oni Press) and A Court of Mist and Fury (Bloomsbury) by bestselling author Sarah J. Maas—are “obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors.”
“Most adults feel uncomfortable having these words read aloud,” Altman told the Virginian Pilot last week, repeating an oft-cited theme amid the current nationwide wave of book bans. “This is not about book banning," he told the Pilot, “It’s about restoring parental rights.”
According to the Virginia Mercury, “the little-utilized state law allows ‘any citizen’ to ask a court to weigh in on books alleged to be obscene.” And in a development that has shocked observers, a local judge on May 18 found there was probable cause the books could be deemed obscene and ordered the authors and publishers to defend the books later this month.
According to the Mercury, the judge who issued the order, Pamela Baskervill, is “a retired Petersburg-area judge,” who is handling the case because “all other judges in Virginia Beach recused themselves.”
The court’s order raises the possibility that the court could issue a restraining order barring the books from public display and restraining booksellers and libraries from selling or loaning the books to minors without parental consent. In a Facebook post, Anderson hailed the judge’s order as “a major legal victory” and laid out the playbook for those seeking to restrict access to materials they find objectionable: “Suits like this can be filed all over Virginia,” Anderson wrote. “There are dozens of books. Hundreds of schools.”
In a statement issued this week, freedom to read advocates say the intent of the obscenity action is clear: “to prevent readers from making a personal choice to read these books,” and as a means to “criminally prosecute librarians, booksellers, and publishers” for making materials they disapprove of available to the public.
“If persons like the petitioners obtain similar orders every time they have objections to a book, it will chill the freedom to read and stifle the voices of authors and publishers,” the statement reads. “The undersigned organizations strongly urge Virginians–and all Americans–to stand against any attempt to use government action to dictate what we can read and how to think about what we read. Prohibiting the sale and distribution of books is an affront to our democratic values and threatens each person's and each family's individual liberties. It is contrary to our principles of democracy to allow anyone, regardless of their beliefs or political position, to determine what other Americans can read.”
The statement is signed by the ACLU, the ACLU of Virginia, the American Booksellers for Free Expression, the American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Freedom to Read Foundation, the National Coalition Against Censorship, the National Council of Teachers of English, PEN America, the Virginia Association of School Librarians, and the Virginia Library Association.
The statement also notes that a book has not been declared obscene by a court in more than 50 years—and suggests that finding the books in question are in fact obscene would be an extraordinary outcome.
“The Supreme Court has established a narrow test for obscenity that requires that the text as a whole, even if it references sex or nudity, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” the statement points out. “Neither of the books challenged in these cases comes remotely close to meeting the Supreme Court’s long-established criterion for a finding of obscenity.”
Kobabe’s Gender Queer is an award-winning coming of age story that has become a focus for book banning efforts around the country, and is the most challenged book in the ALA’s recently released top 10 list. But despite some explicit content, the statement insists that “suggestions that a few depictions of sexual experience render the entire 240-page book obscene are, quite simply, false.”
A Court of Mist and Fury, meanwhile, is a bestselling novel “widely praised work with serious literary and artistic value,” the statement notes, with strong reviews and praise for its “portrayals of mental health struggles, female empowerment, and the dynamics of romantic relationships.”
Reps for Kobabe's publishers, Oni Press, declined comment at this time. Reps for Maas have not yet responded to requests for comment.
A report in the Virginian Pilot last week noted the case could be "a longshot," based on the opinions of local attorneys. “You can’t just have government officials and law enforcement officers deciding on an ad hoc basis what they do and don’t like,” one local attorney told reporters. “The expression ‘slippery slope’ has been overused over the years, but it certainly fits.”