Monday, June 10, State Superior Court Judge Margaret Goodzeit granted dismissed the lawsuit against Watching Hills New Jersey School District for offering the award-winning graphic memoir Fun Home as a reading choice. Further, the suit dismissal itself reads: “Order denying injunction and dismissing complaint with prejudice for failure to state a claim.” Meaning that the plaintiffs can not re-litigate this lawsuit.
The lawsuit was brought against school district employees in Watchung Hills about the inclusion of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home almost exactly a year after the memoir had been retained after parental challenges to the choice. The lawsuit alleged if the graphic novel wasn’t removed, “minors will suffer irreparable harm and that New Jersey statutes will be violated.” The plaintiffs asked the judge to immediately remove the comic, but the judge denied the request saying, “if the plaintiffs were so concerned about the contents of Fun Home, this application could have been brought months- if not a year sooner.”
Watchung Hills Regional High School Board of Education President, Peter Fallon, was one of the named defendants in the case. Fallon publicly responded to the suit with a statement saying, in part,
Plaintiffs’ decision to address only one of the two elements necessary to find a violation of the criminal code … demonstrates the frivolous nature of plaintiffs’ claim. If the plaintiffs were seriously seeking relief in this lawsuit, rather than just publicity for their opposition to the book, they would have addressed both elements of [the criminal code] in their papers. It is a shame that tax-payer money will have to be spent to defend such a baseless lawsuit. Money that will have to be spent to defend this lawsuit is money that will not be available to spend on educating the children of the Watchung Hills Regional High School district.
Fun Home had been offered as an option to several senior English classes in the spring of 2018 after Watchung Hills spent two years studying and reconsidering their curriculum and ways they could improve it. The high school had an opt-out policy in place at the time of the challenge, but the parents who made the complaint didn’t feel it was appropriate for students to be singled out by opting out, so they wanted the book banned completely. CBLDF, a co-sponsors of Kids’ Right to Read Project, spoke out in support of the school’s inclusion of the comic, and was happy with their adherence to their own internal policies, as well as the verdict in that challenge.
The lawsuit derived from plaintiff Emmett Gallic, who was a 17 year old senior the previous year that claims he was “required” to read Fun Home, and the lawsuit states that in forcing Gallic to read the comic, the Board of Education committed a crime. The plaintiffs’ complaint stated in part,
In providing minor children with this book, the Board is in clear, violation of New Jersey Revised Statutes Title 2C – the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice, Section 2C:34-3 entitled Obscenity for Persons under 18. “Obscene material” is defined as “any description, narrative account, display, depiction of a specified anatomical area or specified sexual activity contained in, or consisting of, a picture or representation . . . .” The book clearly depicts specified sexual activity” as defined in the statute.
The plaintiffs’ complaint continues on that the statute provides that anyone who knowingly distributes obscene material to a minor is guilty of a crime in the third degree. But, as Fallon pointed out, the plaintiffs share only subsection “a” of the criminal code. Immediately following it in subsection “b” the code states that to be obscene the material “emits sensuality sufficient, in terms of the duration and impact of the depiction, to appeal to prurient interest.”
In layman’s terms, it says that in order for obscenity laws to apply, the material in question must be designed to create lustful or lascivious thoughts and feelings. Fallon calls out that not only did the plaintiffs not allege the comic met that criteria, the expert the plaintiffs utilized, Director of the Reisman Institute at Liberty University School of Law, Judith Reisman, Ph.D, neglects to mention this criteria as well.
It seems clear that the New Jersey judge agreed that the plaintiffs did not meet the requisite items for the claims they made. CBLDF is proud to congratulate the Watchung Hills School District on this win. May the wisdom of the honorable Judge Goodzeit be a deterrent for future frivolous lawsuits aimed at censoring comics and inhibiting students’ intellectual freedom.
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