Losing—And Then Winning: The Story of Virginia’s HB 516 - National Council of Teachers of English
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Losing—And Then Winning: The Story of Virginia’s HB 516

This post is written by member, Leila Christenbury. 

18466016360_7516ce68bf_kNot all stories have happy endings, but this one does. Thanks to the work of many in NCTE and in the Virginia Association of Teachers of English (VATE), not to mention the courage of Virginia’s governor, unfair and indiscriminate restrictions on good literature have been beaten back.

The story begins in spring 2012 when Lake Braddock High School (Virginia) senior Blake Murphy had nightmares. The “trigger” was his AP English-assigned text, Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Beloved. Calling the novel “disgusting” and “gross,” Blake told his mother Laura he could not finish the book. Subsequently, Laura Murphy asked the Lake Braddock English Department, then the Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent, and then the Fairfax County School Board to remove Beloved from its reading lists. Laura Murphy’s concerns, however, extended beyond her son and beyond Beloved: She asked for a mandatory review process whereby all English teachers would notify parents of the possible use of any text that contained what she termed “sexually explicit content” and to allow students to opt out of the reading.

While the Fairfax County Public Schools administration and School Board denied Ms. Murphy’s request, she persisted. Her son Blake was long graduated from Lake Braddock, but she took her cause to the Virginia Board of Education and then to the Virginia General Assembly. For the next few years the prospective legislation advanced and was beaten back, and VATE members and the VATE Board provided rationales, wrote public comments, spoke at public hearings, and passed official resolutions.

The legislation, now known as House Bill (HB) 516, however, gathered momentum and, in Spring 2016, it passed both bodies in the Virginia General Assembly. One Virginia legislator noted that while he had only read excerpts of Beloved, it was clear that “evil is . . . a kitten . . . You feed it, it becomes a lion and eats you.” With HB 516 in place, Virginia was now in line to be the first state to regulate curriculum and to require parental notification regarding reading texts that could even vaguely be touted as having “sexually explicit content.” The only recourse would be a veto of HB 516 by Virginia’s Governor, Terry McAuliffe.

Thanks to quick work on behalf of NCTE, the governor’s office indicated that it would be willing to meet with NCTE/VATE representatives, and on March 31, as a former VATE Board member, past president of NCTE, and a lifetime English educator, I met at the state capitol with Bob Brink, Senior Legislative Advisor to the Governor, and Jennie O’Holleran, Senior Policy Advisor. I prepared carefully for the meeting and during my 30 minutes outlined the concerns about intellectual freedom, the definition of “sexually explicit,” and the real possibility that this notification issue could extend not only to the English classroom but to student independent reading and to the contents of the school library. The gravity of the issues was outlined, and while I stressed that a veto would be politically unpopular, it was clearly our last resort. We had lost, but with a veto, we could still win. Both Brink and O’Holleran were welcoming and well-informed about the issues; they promised nothing, but I left the meeting feeling heard, if not hopeful.

Remarkably, April 4, just days later, Virginia Governor, Terry McAuliffe, vetoed HB 516, writing, “this legislation lacks flexibility and would require the label of ‘sexually explicit’ to apply to an artistic work based on a single scene, without further context. Numerous educators, librarians, students, and others involved in the teaching process have expressed their concerns about the real-life consequences of this legislation’s requirements.”

The veto of HB 516 is a great win for all of us who cherish intellectual freedom. Led by VATE Outreach and Advocacy Chair Sarah Crain and assisted by VATE executive secretary Chuck Miller, VATE presidents Tori Otstot and Kelly Trump, VATE VDOE Liaison Tracy Fair Robertson, and VATE College Member-at-Large Ross Collin, the organization was, over a period of years, persistent, proactive, and determined. With the help of NCTE, notably Millie Davis and LuAnn McNabb, crucial contact was established with the governor’s office, the issues were outlined, the case made once again, and, with the veto, the battle was won.

I am proud to have had a small part in this four-year endeavor and am even more proud of the terrific work of VATE and NCTE. I would not wish on any organization a similar challenge, but it is most heartening to know that this story has a very happy ending.

Leila Christenbury is Commonwealth Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond. She is the recipient of NCTE’s Distinguished Service Award, a past president of NCTE, and a former editor of English Journal.