Maine lawmaker Amy Arata’s recent proposal to remove public schools from the institutions exempted from the state’s obscenity statute is an attack on students’ intellectual freedom.
The Supreme Court has long established that sexually explicit material with scientific, political, artistic or literary value is not obscene and is protected by the First Amendment (Miller v. California.) As applied to minors, Maine’s obscenity statute states that: “with respect to what is suitable material for minors, considered as a whole, [obscene material] appeals to the prurient interest…[and] considered as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
This protection is at the core of intellectual freedom and has allowed for significant contributions of art, as well as the publication of novels previously suppressed by government officials with religious or other ideological agendas.
Stripping public schools of this protection does nothing to protect students. The material they are taught has been selected precisely for its “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” In fact, the new bill is likely to harm students by potentially exposing public schools to the threat of criminal prosecution and the burden to prove the value of the material they teach.
At minimum, this measure will burden schools with increased challenges to controversial yet educationally important materials. Worse, it will foster a chilling culture of fear, self-censorship and distrust in schools as teachers in risk-averse districts face job insecurity and the threat of prison.
However well-intentioned, Representative Arata’s bill is a disservice to Maine schoolchildren. Like any parent concerned about the educational suitability of their child’s assignments, we encourage Rep. Arata to talk to her child’s teacher and either trust their expert opinion or request an alternate book, rather than using her public powers to intimidate Maine’s public schools.