FBI to review claims that books used in Mich. school are obscene

Friday, March 2, 2007

HOWELL, Mich. — County and federal officials are reviewing claims by a group that books used in Howell High School classes are profane and pornographic.

The Livingston Organization for Values in Education (LOVE) objects to books by Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Kurt Vonnegut and Erin Gruwell, who wrote The Freedom Writers Diary. The group sent letters to the offices of the U.S. attorney, state attorney general and Livingston County prosecutor that ask for opinions on whether the books violate laws on obscenity and distribution of materials that are harmful to minors.

The federal and state offices sent the matter to the FBI, which a spokeswoman said is routine when complaints are filed, according to stories published yesterday in the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus and The Detroit News.

Free-speech advocates criticized the move.

“It is absolutely bizarre that a high official in the Justice Department would take such a step,” Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, was quoted as saying by the Press & Argus. “Under the law, the books cannot be found obscene if they have literary merit, which in this case cannot be reasonably questioned.”

Chris Finan of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression echoed Bertin’s concern.

“We are told that [the U.S. attorney] ‘routinely’ refers all obscenity complaints to the FBI. But he has a duty to reject frivolous claims to ensure that there is no chilling effect on books that are protected by the First Amendment,” Finan said, according to the Press & Argus.

County Prosecutor David Morse said he would decide by next week whether the books meet the legal definition of obscenity. The FBI said its investigation would take up to a month.

To be legally defined as obscene, a book must be found to appeal only to readers’ prurient interest in sex and have no literary or educational value.

In a news release, LOVE called Morrison’s The Bluest Eye a graphic child-rape book. It also objects to Wright’s Black Boy and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. LOVE had asked the Howell school board to remove the books from the school curriculum, but the board rejected the group’s request on Feb. 12 by a 5-2 vote.

Susan Kley, a member of Friends of Howell Public Schools, rejects the arguments made by the LOVE.

“If you feel that strongly about it, put your kids in private school,” she said.

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