Ban on obscenity in schools sought
Teacher defends controversial literature
The topic in Susan Tate’s literature class on Friday was a poem: “Leaves of Grass,” by Walt Whitman.
“Leaves” is an old piece of art, and respected. When it was composed in the 1850s, Tate said, Whitman’s work was regarded as scandalous – the author even faced indecency charges.
“Critic after critic said it was unclean,” said Tate, who teaches at Lawrence High School. “One critic for the New York Tribune said that Walt Whitman had taken his trousers off in the marketplace.”
Good literature, Tate said, often carries at least a whiff of controversy.
But an ongoing dispute over books taught in Johnson County’s Blue Valley school district could lead to a statewide ban on obscenity in K-12 schools, changing the way that classes like Tate’s are taught. Republican activists are pushing for such a plank in the state party’s platform, to be approved at next month’s “Kansas Days” gathering of GOP faithful.
“Surely our K-12 schools can be required to adhere to our obscenity laws,” said Charlotte O’Hara, the GOP’s vice-chairwoman in the northeast Kansas 3rd congressional district, which includes Johnson County and the eastern half of Lawrence. “I think there’s great interest in this.”
The Blue Valley district has been embroiled in controversy for months, after some parents asked that 14 books containing obscenities, vulgar language or sexually explicit material be removed from high school reading lists.
The list includes “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, “Black Boy,” by Richard Wright and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” by Ken Kesey.
The dispute drew statewide attention last month when State Board of Education Chairman Steve Abrams wrote in an op-ed column that districts like Blue Valley “promulgate pornography as ‘literature,’ even though many parents have petitioned the local boards to remove the porn.”
Those concerns boiled over at an Oct. 29 meeting of the Johnson County Republican Party, which was convened to take suggestions for the state party platform.
“I think it’s on people’s minds. They feel that there are limits that have been exceeded,” said Charlene Bredemeier, the county party’s vice-chairwoman. “I think people would like the party to stand for values.”
The problem, O’Hara said, is that while state law prohibits “knowingly or recklessly” possessing obscene materials, it also allows teachers and schools to use such materials for educational purposes.
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“It’s not a bit of a loophole,” O’Hara said. “They are exempt.”
She noted that the law used “community standards” to define obscenity. Teachers shouldn’t get a free pass from those standards, she said.
“I was shocked when I went out and found (educational use) was an affirmative defense” against obscenity charges, O’Hara said. She added, “It’s not like it’s a witch-hunt.”
‘Devil in details’
The proposal, however, is causing concerns among educators.
“I have never talked to, nor do I have any evidence that anybody I know in education would willfully distribute obscenity, what they consider obscenity,” said Randy Weseman, superintendent of Lawrence public schools. “The rub of it is that there are people who would disagree.”
He added: “We don’t do obscenity. There’s a lot of literature that has colorful language – I guess the devil is in the details.”
Jim Hays, a research specialist with the Kansas Association of School Boards, said the state should leave the issue alone.
“This is not the first time this sort of discussion has happened in Kansas or elsewhere,” he said of the Blue Valley controversy. “It’s the perfect example of why local school boards are the best place to have these discussions.”
Blue Valley officials declined comment for this article. The organizers of ClassKC, the group protesting books there, did not respond to an e-mail requesting an interview.
Derrick Sontag, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said he hadn’t seen a draft of the state platform yet and didn’t know whether the obscenity ban would be included when the GOP gathers next month.
And at least one influential Republican, state Sen. Jean Schodorf – a Wichitan who chairs the Senate Education Committee – said she’d be skeptical of ever scheduling a hearing for such a proposal.
“There’s no pornography in the schools, so why have a law?” she said. “We have enough other concerns in education, so why create a law that affects things that aren’t happening?”
LHS teacher Tate, meanwhile, worries about what a ban would mean in her efforts to teach literature to high school students. Her last protest against a book came 10 years ago, she said, when a parent asked that their child not be required to read “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.
“I think it’s important for students to read literature and to understand the history of literature,” she said.
“When we read literature, we’re reading about ourselves,” Tate added. “Some of it is violent, and some of it is sexual. It’s the history of who we are. It’s a way to gain understanding about all people.”