In the Kansas legislative session that has included such crazy antics as the House passing a bill to discriminate against gays and lesbians in the name of "religious freedom," a sonogram on the House floor, and consideration of bills to end no-fault divorce, to send tax money to private schools, including those run by religious institutions, and a bill spelling out how far an adult can go in applying corporal punishment on a child's bottom, it should be no surprise that SB 401 has reared its crazy head.
SB 401, which has been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, "removes from public, private, and parochial schools the defense of literary or artistic merit or significance when someone accuses the school of exposing students to 'offensive' materials." This information, from the Kansas NEA's Under the Dome newsletter, lets teachers know what they would be in for if they used instructional materials such as Michelangelo's David, materials that exposed children to nudity or language that some consider offensive.
During most of my teaching career, I taught journalism. The only problem I faced was dealing with an angry principal on Monday morning after the high school newspaper came out on Friday. I was never concerned because I taught my students to write using sources and facts and to write clearly and concisely. Also, Kansas has a law that guarantees freedom of the press for students.
However, I did teach English occasionally. I can imagine the outcry under SB401 if parents got wind that I was teaching a play in which two underage kids fall in love, go to bed together, yes, they did get married first, then committed suicide. Recognize that plot? Yes, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers, also probably crossed the decency line.
From here on, I will quote from Under the Dome. According to Under the Dome, the Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a bill that will purge literature from our schools, censor art classes, and stop field trips.
Senate Bill 401 does two things:
Under current law, one can defend the display of art in an art history class because of the importance of a particular work of art. For example, works that include nudes - Michelangelo's statue of David, Peter Paul Rubens' painting The Fall of Man - are important in the history of art. Students can see them as part of instruction and, if a parent objects and accuses the school of promoting obscenity, the "affirmative defense" allows the school to argue the artistic merit of the piece in question.
Senate Bill 401removes from public, private and parochial schools the defense of literary or artistic merit or significance when someone accuses the school of exposing students to "offensive" materials.
The same applies to literature. For years people have tried to get books pulled from literature classes and school libraries. Huckleberry Finn, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret are three examples of books that have been challenged over the years. But the defense of literary merit has been allowed. Senate Bill 401 removes that defense from public, private, and parochial schools.
If you think this only has to do with "obscenity," you are wrong. While the bill does address obscene materials, its provisions also apply if "a reasonable person would find that the material or performance lacks serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors." This language is so broad as to include almost anything. Could someone challenge Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry as lacking "political value?"
The second thing the bill does thanks to a committee amendment is to lower the standard under which an educator can be sent to court from "knowingly" exposing a minor to such materials to "recklessly." Under current law, a person would have to know he/she was showing offensive materials. Under the amendment, if a teacher has an art history book on his/her desk and a student flips through it and sees a nude, the teacher can be accused of recklessly exposing the student to that image. A teacher who takes a field trip to the state capitol and suddenly notes the bare breasted woman in the artwork in the rotunda can be accused of recklessly exposing students to nudity.
Think it's far-fetched? The lead proponent of this legislation is the American Family Association in Kansas which has been leading an effort to force the removal of a sculpture of a bare-breasted woman from a public arboretum in Johnson County, going so far as to successfully petition to impanel a grand jury on the issue.
If this bill were to pass, it would provide more ammunition for anyone to petition to bring a teacher, librarian, or principal before a grand jury.
This bill will be considered by the full Senate. Please contact your state senator and ask that SB 401 be rejected.
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