A lawmaker in Maine is using her position of power to attack students’ intellectual freedom and restrict the books available to her son and his peers in public schools in the state. Amy Arata, elected in 2018 as a state representative for House District 65, introduced a bill that would remove an exemption for public schools in a law governing the distribution of obscene materials, in hopes of restricting their reading material to only things the lawmaker feels are age-appropriate.
It all began when Arata’s son, who is a senior at a public school in Maine, came home one day with Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, an award-winning modern day classic hailed by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2005. Arata decided to see what the book was about, and according to a report from The Sun Journal, the lawmaker found it “very, very specific and graphic” and that “its obscenity outweighed any possible value for students who are still minors.”
Arata also used her position on the School Administrative District 15 board of directors to have the book withdrawn from use at the school, even though according to The Sun Journal, Arata claims “it’s not about banning books,” she said about her proposed legislation, it’s about guaranteeing that students are using age-appropriate materials that are educational.
Still, others would say Arata is cherry-picking graphic scenes out of context, without looking at the work on a whole. The Sun Journal article found a column from 2017 in The Clarion, a Portland, Oregon high school paper that discussed reading Kafka on the Shore in class. The two students who wrote the column were able to note, that even though there are graphic scenes, in reading the book as a whole, it is apparent that it is much more than those isolated parts.
There are some students–specifically, students in the class–who heard about the contents of the novel from their friends and got all flustered without reading it themselves. When you read “Kafka on the Shore,” it will become clear that this novel is more than its few graphic scenes. This is a book that is difficult to grasp the overarching meaning of by surfing Sparknotes. Without actually reading it, students will never understand the full context of such an intricate text with simple chapter summaries that only skim the surface.
The two juniors who wrote the column, Ariel Harmon and Brooklyn Pierce, were more in tune with the intricacies of the novel, then the Republican lawmaker in Maine, who after finishing Murakami’s work only felt inspired to make sure no one else was allowed to read it in public high schools. Harmon and Pierce also noted that none of the graphic bits of the novel were out of line with other current TV shows and movies to which high school students gravitate.
National Coalition Against Censorship has also taken up the cause, fighting against this legislation. They put it best in their recent article
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.
NCAC explains the obscenity laws in Maine expertly, pointing out that sexually explicit material with a scientific, political, artistic or literary value not only isn’t considered obscene but has the protection of the First Amendment. And stripping the public school exemption from Maine’s obscenity laws will not do what Arata thinks it will. “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.
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