RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Governor Glenn Youngkin is walking back comments on a 1950’s law that is at the center of an effort to restrict book sales to minors.
A case that aimed to ban two books with sexual content from being sold to kids without parental permission was thrown out on Tuesday in Virginia Beach. The judge called the state law underpinning the lawsuit unconstitutional, citing due process and free speech violations.
The law creates a pathway for citizens to seek broader bans on ‘obscene’ books for minors and adults.
When asked about calls to repeal the obscenity law after an event on Wednesday morning, Youngkin initially conveyed support and compared it to a separate law that requires schools to warn parents about sexually explicit classroom material.
“I am ok with it staying on the books,” Youngkin said.
“Government in many places has a role to make sure there is transparency. That, in fact, there is a decision moment for parents in so many cases and then those decisions have to be made. The obscenity laws try hard to get us there, which is to give parents the right to make decisions, and then the courts are going to have to interpret these,” Youngkin continued.
Youngkin walked back those comments on Wednesday evening but stopped short of calling for a full repeal.
“I do not support the banning of books and the General Assembly should take a look at this section of code and review it in the next session,” Youngkin said in a statement.
The little-known law became the subject of scrutiny after Republican Delegate Tim Anderson filed a lawsuit targeting two novels: “Gender Queer” and “Court of Mist and Fury.” The books were previously pulled from schools in Virginia Beach but this lawsuit attempted to expand that.
“We’ve never said Barnes & Noble can’t sell these books. We’ve never said that once. Anyone who is reporting that is reporting incorrectly. We’ve always said we want restrictions on selling them to children,” Anderson told reporters after the hearing on Tuesday.
But the law Anderson used to make that case goes further.
“At its very core the statute has multiple constitutional flaws that put free expression of literary works in jeopardy,” said Eden Heilman, the legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “Ultimately, I think it would be beneficial for us to get it off the books.”
Heilman said the law creates a process for citizens to take legal action to ban the retail sale and lending of books across Virginia if a judge agrees the content is obscene. Violators risk criminal penalties, even if they have no knowledge of the restrictions.
“If you didn’t know the book was obscene and you lent it to someone else, that statute infers a presumption of intent and that could be very dangerous,” Heilman said.
Circuit Judge Pamela Bakersvill, who dismissed Anderson’s lawsuit, cited that presumption in her order as one reason why the law violates the First Amendment and the Constitution of Virginia.
Bakersvill also referenced free-speech concerns surrounding “prior restraint.”
That’s because the law says books involved in an obscenity trial can be restricted using a temporary restraining order before a final determination is made in court, according to Heilman.
It’s not clear yet if there will be a bill introduced in the 2023 session to repeal the obscenity law.
Delegate Anderson said he is looking into legislation that would create a rating system for books.
“Very similar to what they do with violent video games. Just to have content put on books that give parents warnings that there might be sexually explicit material inside of it. That’s what we would generally be, I think, looking for mostly,” Anderson said.
Anderson has yet to announce plans to appeal the judge’s dismissal.