Obscenity case seeking to bar Barnes & Noble from selling 2 books to minors dismissed by judge

Obscenity case seeking to bar Barnes & Noble from selling 2 books to minors dismissed by judge

A Virginia Beach Circuit Court judge on Tuesday dismissed an effort to declare two books obscene and unfit for children.

Judge Pamela Baskervill found that “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe and “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas are not obscene under state law. Former congressional candidate Tommy Altman, and his attorney, state Del. Tim Anderson, argued that there should be separate standards of obscenity for children and adults.

However, Baskervill found that the Circuit Court does not have the authority to determine if a book is “obscene as to minors” and, ultimately, neither book met the current standards.

She also raised concerns about due process by not providing notice to all parties that could be impacted by a ruling in the case.

Without notifying all interested parties — such as booksellers not named in the case — ruling the books obscene for children would have been a constitutional violation “in that it violates due process by authorizing judgment without notice to affected parties.” Barnes & Noble was served notice of the hearing after the show cause was issued.

Virginia booksellers like Prince Books in Norfolk and Read Books in Virginia Beach, as well as several advocacy groups like the Association of American Publishers, American Library Association, Virginia Library Association and more, were allowed to appear in court in support of the books, authors and publishers.

“We’re gratified with the ruling,” Robert Corn-Revere, an attorney for Barnes & Noble, said.

“What was confirmed from today’s ruling is that it is unfair to refer to partial contents of a book as ‘pornographic’ or ‘obscene,’” Lisa Varga, executive director of the Virginia Library Association, said in a statement. “We have seen those words used a lot in Virginia Beach, particularly when it comes to books in school libraries. The truth is that there is a legal standard a work has to meet before those words can be used to describe it.”

Complaints regarding these books started with the Virginia Beach Public School libraries, where both titles were previously found. “Gender Queer” had been removed by a School Board work group, which found the graphic novel to be “pervasively vulgar.” Anderson referred back to this decision multiple times Tuesday as an indication of community standards for defining obscenity.

“(’Gender Queer’) could have been the book without the graphic illustrations,” Anderson said.

He emphasized that the goal was not to ban the books, but to put age restrictions on them similar to rated-R movies. He also suggested a rating system that would alert parents to sexually explicit content could be used to help them determine if a book is appropriate for their child.

Anderson indicated in previously filed court documents that “A Court of Mist and Fury” was no longer available in Virginia Beach middle school libraries, where he had found it in the online catalog.

Several books in Virginia Beach school libraries have been challenged for being “pornographic” and inappropriate for children by Board Member Victoria Manning and some community members. Debates over these kinds of books have gotten heated in recent meetings with many public speakers calling school officials “porn peddlers.”

Corn-Revere said Altman’s petitions against “Gender Queer” and “A Court of Mist and Fury” served to move the “political dispute” from the schools to the court.

He also criticized Anderson’s arguments for attempting to combine two separate laws dealing with obscenity and what is harmful to minors, saying that to do so would lead “the court to legislate from the bench.”

Altman and Anderson said they are considering whether to appeal the ruling. Anderson also said he may sponsor legislation in the General Assembly related to this matter.

“At the end of the day, Mr. Anderson and I will always commit to protecting children and restoring parental rights,” Altman said.

Adding to this, Anderson said in an emailed statement, “Fundamentally, my client believes there should be a different standard for children than currently exists for adults, but that will require review by higher court to conclusively answer this question and possibly additions to the code by the General Assembly.”

An email statement from Kamala Lannetti, Virginia Beach School Board attorney, explained that the board had argued the court did not have jurisdiction over the board based on Code of Virginia § 18.2-383 which exempts public schools from the application of § 18.2-384 relating to “proceeding against books alleged to be obscene.”

Early in the hearing, Anderson withdrew a request for temporary restraining order that would have prevented book sellers, including Barnes & Noble, from selling the books to minors. This led to the Virginia Beach School Board’s motion to dismiss the case as “moot.”

In early May, Judge Pamela Baskervill supported the petition, finding that the books could be “obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors,” and ordered the authors and publishers to defend their works. In the judge’s final order, it stated that this order was “made on an incomplete record,” so it was vacated Tuesday.

Kelsey Kendall, kelsey.kendall@virginiamedia.com