The Kansas Senate last week passed a bill that could send teachers to jail if they expose students to material deemed “harmful to minors.” While proponents say the intention is to shield children from pornography, critics fear that the overbroad statute could criminalize many legitimate topics of study, from literature to art to biology. In fact, this effort began last year in response to a sex ed poster that was briefly displayed in a middle school classroom.
Like most states that have a “harmful to minors” statute–a much lower bar than obscenity or pornography–Kansas currently exempts schools, universities, museums, and libraries from prosecution under the law. The reason why should become clear just by reading what could fall into the “harmful” category: “any description, exhibition, presentation or representation, in whatever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement or sadomasochistic abuse.” Granted, the statute does go on to say that the material is only harmful if it meets a watered-down “for minors” version of the Miller Test, but consider that a Kansas legislator also last week called Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye pornographic.
The bill passed 26-14 in the state Senate last week would remove teachers from the exemptions in the existing “harmful to minors” statute, so that professional educators could be subject to the same penalties–up to six months in jail and a $1000 fine–as someone who, for instance, walked up to a child on the street and handed her or him a pornographic film. Some legislators had planned to oppose the bill when it came up for debate, but they were not present in the chamber at the time the vote was taken due to reported “confusion.” The bill will now proceed to the House of Representatives, where we hope opponents will better organize against it. Stay tuned!
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.