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Virginia Democrats push back against book bans as Republicans duck blame

A GOP state senator says her bill requiring schools to notify parents about ‘sexually explicit’ content in library books was not intended to lead to book bans.

By Will Fritz - October 16, 2023
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Republican incumbent State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant speaks during an interview as she visits voters in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019.
Republican incumbent State Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant speaks during an interview as she visits voters in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia Democrats are pushing back against censorship laws that they say encourage book bans — even as some Republicans attempt to duck responsibility for what the bills have wrought.

Schuyler VanValkenburg and Joel Griffin are two Democratic candidates for the Virginia General Assembly who are making book bans a central part of their campaign.

VanValkenburg’s opponent, Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, sent VanValkenburg’s campaign a cease-and-desist letter after the campaign released an ad pinning the blame on her for schools removing books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” from library shelves.

Griffin’s campaign released an ad defending the importance of books and libraries. His campaign manager says the silence on book bans from their opponent, Del. Tara Durant, has been “deafening.”

Dunnavant is responsible for introducing Senate Bill 656, which was enacted in 2022 and requires Virginia schools to notify parents about “sexually explicit content” in instructional materials. Durant voted for the bill in the House of Delegates.

The law is now often cited as justification for banning books. In June, Dunnavant told the news site Stateline that that was not the intention of her bill.

“This is not about books,” Dunnavant said. “This is not about censoring. This is about collaboration and what’s in the best interest of a child. And so, I was sorry to hear … that in some cases someone is using this bill in the wrong way.”

The VanValkenburg campaign said Dunnavant’s attempts to distance herself from book bans are disingenuous.

“It is a fact and has been widely reported that Senator Dunnavant’s legislation has enabled right-wing MAGA extremists across the Commonwealth in their attempts to ban classic and educationally important books, like the Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird,” the campaign said in a statement provided to the American Independent Foundation. “If you give extremists the tools to promote hate and sow division, they will use them. We encourage Senator Dunnavant to reflect on the tool she provided to the most extreme right-flank of her party and take responsibility for doing so.”

Griffin campaign manager Jeremy Levinson said the book ban law is a slippery slope, even if the intent was to prevent kids from reading sexualized or inappropriate content.

“I mean, obviously, there’s no litmus test,” Levinson said. “You have books now being banned about slavery and the Holocaust, not just here in the commonwealth, all across the country.”

Levinson added that Republicans know book bans are unpopular and that that’s why they’re doing as much as they can to avoid talking about the issue.

An Ipsos/NPR poll conducted in May 2023 showed 65% of American adults either strongly oppose or somewhat oppose local school boards banning and removing books. The same poll found 69% of respondents — including 52% of Republican respondents — oppose state lawmakers passing laws to ban books from classrooms and school libraries.

“A ban is a ban, and we see the same thing with abortion,” Levinson said. “They’re trying to move the goalposts because they’re reading the poll and they know that it’s an unpopular position for them, but our opponent behind closed doors believes that life begins at conception and she wants to let Virginia ban abortion with no exceptions. So it’s the same sort of mentality that distracts from the reality of what’s actually going on on the ground here.”

Neither Dunnavant’s nor Durant’s campaign immediately responded to a request for comment from the American Independent Foundation.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.


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