There’s an important difference between offensive and obscene.
To illustrate that point, we need look no further than our president. Donald Trump fully dressed is offensive. Donald Trump naked is obscene.
This distinction is important because Maine law requires us to protect our children from obscenity, but not from offensiveness. Therefore, it’s legal to allow kids to watch presidential press conferences on television because there’s usually a lectern between Trump and the viewers, in case he decides to go pantless.
There are other exceptions to the state obscenity law. Those under age 18 can view all manner of smutty books, pictures, sculpture or video if it’s “for purely educational purposes by any library, art gallery, museum, public school, private school or institution of higher learning.”
How else are kids supposed to learn about sex?
They won’t if Republican state Rep. Amy Arata of New Gloucester has her way. Arata has introduced legislation to remove the legal exemption for public schools from the statute. Her bill was prompted by her teenage son, who came home with a class assignment to read Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s 2002 novel “Kafka On The Shore.” Arata told the Lewiston Sun Journal the book “was very very specific and graphic,” including its depictions of rape.
Murakami’s book has been both critically acclaimed and severely criticized (it’s banned in Hong Kong, for whatever that’s worth). I haven’t read it, and even if I had, I doubt I’d be a good judge of whether it was appropriate for high-school students, since I spent my teenage years in relentless pursuit of anything with even a hint of pornography about it. Obviously, that warped me for life.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that obscene material “lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value” (there goes most of Fox’s prime-time lineup) and contains “patently offensive” depictions of assorted sex acts (looking at you, Bill Clinton). Numerous court cases have found that it’s almost impossible to use that definition to ban written works.
But that only applies to what adults can access. Surely, our impressionable youth are a different matter. Shouldn’t there be protective measures in place to shield them from depictions of assorted naughty bits in the process of unfettered wiggling and waggling?
Oddly enough, there are. And Arata, who’s also a member of her local school board, knew how to use them. She took her concerns to the superintendent and the teacher, who considered her arguments.
This process has worked in dozens of Maine school districts over the last several decades to resolve disputes over books ranging from classics like Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to more contemporary works like Dorothy Allison’s “Bastard Out of Carolina.” In nearly every case, local officials worked hard to separate the obscene from the merely offensive.
Sometimes, the works in question were dumped. Other times, the children of parents who complained were offered alternative books. And frequently, school officials found the controversial books to be acceptable. Being offended, they said, was part of a good education.
Arata’s bill would take the authority to judge works like “Kafka On The Shore” away from local schools and give it to the courts or, worse yet, the Legislature, even though it’s likely a sizable number of those esteemed officials think Kafka is an organic breakfast cereal.
That’s not just offensive. It’s close to obscene.
Pull up your pants before emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.