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FBI, State Deem Books Legal after Obscenity Complaints

Howell, Michigan

Federal, state, and county prosecutors declined prosecution against the Howell School Board in Howell, Michigan after a local group complained that books used in Howell High School’s AP English classes were obscene.

The FBI, Michigan Attorney General, and Livingston County District Attorney found that the books included in Howell High School’s curriculum had literary merit and did not violate local, state, or federal laws on obscenity, pornography, or endangering the welfare of minors.1,2

The books in question included Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Erin Gruwell’s The Freedom Writers Diary, and Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors.3

The prosecutors’ investigation began after citizens’ group The Livingston Organization for Values in Education (LOVE) complained that the books were profane and pornographic.4 In a press release, a LOVE spokesperson compared the five books in Howell High School’s curriculum to Penthouse and Playboy magazines, saying that they “contain similarly graphic material in written form [and] are equally inappropriate.”5 LOVE’s President called Morrison’s The Bluest Eye a “graphic child rape book.”6

In February, LOVE demanded that the books be removed from curriculum, filing formal complaints with the Howell School Board, the District and U.S. Attorney’s Offices and the Michigan Attorney General.

On February 12, the school board voted 5-2 to reject LOVE’s complaint.7

“We should be very careful about dismissing literary works because they test our belief system or challenge our values,” said the district superintendent.8

County prosecutor David Morse concurred. In a letter that he sent to LOVE on March 2, Morse concluded that the books are legal on two grounds. “Since the school board has approved use of these books, the teachers and administrators have complied with the school code and are excepted from criminal prosecution under the statute,” he explained.9

Further, to qualify as obscene, a book must be found to appeal only to readers’ prurient interest in sex and to have no literary or educational merit.10 Morse continued, “After reading the books in question, it is clear that the explicit passages illustrated a larger literary, artistic or political message and were not included solely to appeal to the prurient interests of minors."11

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox and U.S. Attorney Stephen Murphy agreed with Morse. Both declined prosecution in mid-March.12

The books will continue to be used in Howell High School’s AP English classes.

References

  1. “FBI to review claims that books used in Mich. school are obscene,” First Amendment Center, 2 March 2007, accessed 19 March 2007,
    <www.firstamendmentcenter.org/news.aspx?id=18234>.
  2. Dan Meisler, “Controversial Books Cleared,” Daily Press & Argus (MI), 6 March 2007, accessed 19 March 2007, <www.dailypressandargus.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?
    AID=/20070306/NEWS01/703060318/1002
    >.
  3. Ibid.; “Feds, state won't pursue obscene-book claims,” First Amendment Center, 11 March 2007, accessed 19 March 2007,
    <www.firstamendmentcenter.org/%5Cnews.aspx?id=18269>.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Jim Brown and Jenni Parker, “Feds Asked to Investigate ‘Obscenity’ in School Curriculum,” OneNewNew.com, 1 March 2007, accessed 8 March 2008,
    <www.onenewsnow.com/2007/03/feds_asked_to_investigate_obsc.php>.
  6. “FBI to review claims.”   
  7. Ibid.
  8. Dan Meisler, “Controversial Books Cleared,” Daily Press & Argus (MI), 6 March 2007, accessed 19 March 2007, <www.dailypressandargus.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?
    AID=/20070306/NEWS01/703060318/1002
    >.
  9. Ibid.
  10. “FBI to review claims.”
  11. Ibid.
  12. “Feds, state won't pursue obscene-book claims.”

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