Virginia legislator asks court to restrict Barnes & Noble sales of ‘obscene’ books

A Virginia legislator is asking the court to stop Barnes & Noble from selling two books to minors without their parent’s permission.

A Virginia legislator is asking the court to restrict Barnes & Noble from selling two books to minors as a lawsuit over the books’ alleged “obscenity” is under review.

On Wednesday, a judge in the Virginia Beach Circuit Court issued a ruling that said the books had probable cause to meet the court’s definition of obscene. That preliminary ruling set the stage for Tim Anderson, a Republican lawyer serving in the Virginia House of Delegates, to file for restraining orders against Barnes & Noble and Virginia Beach Schools to prevent them from selling or loaning the book to minors as the case works its way through court.

The initial lawsuit alleges that the books, “Gender Queer,” an illustrated memoir by Maia Kobabe and “A Court of Mist and Fury,” a fantasy novel by Sarah J. Maas, are obscene. Anderson filed the suit on behalf of Tommy Altman, a conservative who is running for Congress.

The authors of the books have 21 days to respond to the judge’s ruling, as do “all other persons interested in the sale or commercial distribution of the book.” If the court sides with the two Republicans at the end of those 21 days, it will be illegal to sell or distribute the materials to minors in Virginia.

“As booksellers, we carry thousands of books whose subject matter some may find offensive. … We ask that our customers respect our responsibility to offer this breadth of reading materials, and respect also that, while they chose not to purchase many of these themselves, they may be of interest to others,” Barnes & Noble told The Washington Post in a statement Friday.

In a Facebook post Friday evening, Anderson said that there are other instances of restricting private companies from selling sexually explicit materials to kids:

“Minors are not allowed to go into movie theaters with R rated movies without parent/guardian consent,” Anderson said. “Minors cannot buy Hustler and Playboy magazines. Further, minors also cannot do other adult activities like buy beer or cigarettes.”

Altman’s lawsuit invokes an often overlooked portion of Virginia’s legal code, which allows for any citizen to ask a judge to review a book over purported obscenity. Altman’s suit slightly differs from previous uses of the law because it specifies an age-limit for the material, rather than banning the books wholesale. The case is being handled by retired Judge Pamela Baskervill of Petersburg because every Virginia Beach judge recused themselves from the case, according to Anderson.

The graphic memoir “Gender Queer” is already set to be removed from Virginia Beach Public Schools after a group reviewing the book found the illustrations to be “pervasively vulgar,” last week, the Virginia Pilot reports.

Anderson called the ruling a “major legal victory,” in a Facebook post: “We are in a major fight. Suits like this can be filed all over Virginia. There are dozens of books. Hundreds of schools.”

Anderson and Altman have made statements online saying that the lawsuit doesn’t seek to ban the books.

“I want to be very clear, this is not a book ban,” Altman said in a video on Twitter. “We are simply asking for parental consent for any minor who views sexually explicit material.”

WTOP has reached out to representatives for both authors for comment.

Book bans are on the rise nationwide. The American Library Association tracked 729 attempts to remove library, school and university materials in 2021, which involved 1,597 books. That’s a jump from previous years with 156 attempts in 2020 and 377 in 2019.

One book in particular, “Gender Queer” has been the subject of controversy; it was the most challenged book in the U.S. in 2021, according to the association.

“Gender Queer” was yanked from libraries in Fairfax County but after a review and some students’ objections, copies were put back on shelves in Fairfax County late last year.

Loudoun County Public Schools moved to remove the same book in late January.

The author of “Gender Queer” told NBC in December 2021 that they believe the book is better suited for high school libraries than elementary schools.

“A Court of Mist and Fury” was recommended for teens 17 years or older by Common Sense Media, an organization that writes reviews on book’s content. The site says the book includes “several prolonged, intense, explicit sex scenes” along with violence and “crude” language.

The legal standard for obscenity is sometimes different for kids than for adults. It’s illegal to transfer or try to transfer materials deemed as obscene to people kids under the age of 16.

Virginia legislator asks court to restrict Barnes & Noble sales of ‘obscene’ books