Bill could put limits on book choices

House proposal targets 'obscene' material in schools

? A Lawrence English teacher said Monday that proposed legislation to reduce protections for teachers from obscenity laws could result in students missing out on important literature.

“We do our kids a disservice when we start censoring” books that have been read for years, said Lori Stussie, who teaches a class called Diverse Voices at Lawrence High School.

The House Federal and State Affairs Committee has recommended approval of House Bill 2200, which would limit a legal protection for elementary and secondary teachers from laws governing obscene materials. College and university instructors and professors would retain the protection.

Supporters of the bill said there is potential harm to minors in being exposed to obscenity or pornography in novels, plays, books and films.

“The practical effect of this defense is that materials that would be illegal if sold at a porn shop may be legal if displayed to a kindergarten class,” said Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, who sought the legislation.

But State Board of Education Chairman Bill Wagnon, D-Topeka, whose district includes Lawrence, opposed the bill, saying local school districts – not the Legislature – should handle any conflict about literature.

“We need to protect the classroom from those kind of intrusions,” Wagnon said.

Committee member Rep. Ann Mah, D-Topeka, said the bill was a setup for legal action.

“This bill is not about stopping nefarious teachers. This bill is about giving nefarious district attorneys a tool to bring charges against English teachers,” Mah said.

Mah was referring to Johnson County District Attorney Phill Kline, the former state attorney general. She said there was a test case for the obscenity bill in the Blue Valley school district, also in Johnson County.

The parent group Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools has sought for two years to get the Blue Valley school district to remove 14 books from its curriculum.

Some of the books the group has complained about include “Black Boy,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Song of Solomon” and “Secret Life of Bees.”

Kinzer, however, said the bill’s intent goes beyond a lone group of angry parents in a single district.

Stussie, the LHS teacher, said many times the books criticized as obscene by some groups were written by minority authors.

She said such books were important in giving nonminorities a “broad spectrum of cultural perspectives,” and that her classes incorporated some of the books that often draw complaints.

Stussie said classes she was familiar with provide alternative selections for a student who doesn’t want to read the required book. Also, she said, in her smaller literature groups she lets the students pick which book to read.

Some fear that teachers will censor their classes to avoid legal problems if such a bill becomes law.

Stussie said she didn’t know how other teachers would react, but said her courses likely would stay the same.

“It probably would not deter me from teaching the things I see that are valuable,” she said.