This State Wants a Trigger Warning for Toni Morrison

A bill in front of the Virginia legislature would force schools to seek parental permission before teaching books that have sex scenes.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

A Virginia mother who failed to get a Pulitzer Prize-winning book removed from her son’s classroom is taking her mission statewide, calling for teachers to provide what are in effect trigger warnings against “sexually explicit content” in books, so that parents can opt out of assignments they deem inappropriate.

House Bill 516—the first of its kind in the nation— may not be outright book-banning, but it certainly comes close, and it’s sailing through the Republican-majority state legislature. Passed unanimously by the House earlier this month, the proposed legislation would require the Board of Education to notify parents when instructional material includes sexually explicit content, allow them time to review such material, and provide alternative assignments at their request.

As first reported in The Washington Post, mother of four, Laura Murphy, fought her eldest son’s school board for six months in an attempt to ban Toni Morrison’s classic and consistently challenged, Beloved—a literally haunting novel that grapples with issues of race, gender and sex, in the tale of a woman cursed by the ghost of a child she murdered to protect her from being enslaved.

School policy at the time already provided students who felt uncomfortable with a specific text the opportunity to opt out of an assignment, but for Murphy, the policy didn’t go far enough. In an Op-Ed for the Post, Murphy likened Beloved to a sex-education program, and wrote that providing clear information regarding the sexual content in books would actually expand academic freedom.

Requests for comment from Laura Murphy and her eldest son, Blake Murphy, were not returned in time for publication.

“I don’t shelter my kids, but I have to be a responsible parent,” Murphy said. “I want to make sure every kid in the county is protected.”

Her son Blake —who interned for Marco Rubio in the summer of 2013 and, according to his Twitter profile, now attends The University of Florida, where he will soon begin law school—told the Post in 2013 that reading the book at night for his senior Advanced Placement English class gave him night terrors.

“It was disgusting and gross,” Blake Murphy—then 17 or 18 years old—said at the time. “It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”

But his mother continued the fight. After her challenge was denied by the school, the school board, the superintendent, and the county board of education, she found state lawmakers to be a more sympathetic bunch, and Delegate R. Steven Landes (R), chairman of the House education committee, sponsored her bill in January.

In the meantime, Murphy did report incremental changes were happening at the school level. “Schools are reexamining books that appear on their assigned and recommended reading lists. English teachers have taken it upon themselves to issue permission slips to parents regarding books their children will be reading, and parents are meeting with school counselors to determine which English classes their children should take,” she wrote in her Op-Ed.

Yet, there was somehow still a need for sexual content warnings to become law. Should HB 516 make its way to the governor’s desk, a number of questions linger regarding implementation. Who would decide whether a book was “sexually explicit?” Would Beloved require the same warning as Moby Dick (does sexual imagery or homoeroticism count)? Does “Medea” get a pass because she murdered her children, but didn’t have sex? Would a generic “This book may offend some readers.” be enough? Should teachers create some sort of rating system? Is the College Board’s recommended reading list, and board-required syllabus before class commences not an adequate way to find out which books your kids are reading?

It’s also worth considering the case that sparked this debate, and inspired HB 516—which if passed, would make Virginia the first in the nation to attempt to control what students read in this way.

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Did a boy who would leave for college the following year, one who enrolled in an advanced placement English class, and posted photos of his liquor stash on social media, need his mother’s protection from Toni Morrison’s words

Perhaps Blake Murphy got at the real problem with his recent Twitter post quoting Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself.”