A bill that would criminalize the act of assigning “obscene” learning materials to students in Maine classrooms was unanimously rejected by members of a legislative committee Monday.
LD 94, proposed by Rep. Amy Arata, R-New Gloucester, seeks to amend state statute to make it legal to charge teachers and school administrators with a Class C crime — a felony that could have potentially brought a fine and jail time — if they knowingly allow, without student or parental consent, students to be exposed to violent or sexually explicit material in the form of literature, art or film.
Arata said last week she intended to amend her bill to remove the felony portion, but the bill came before the committee Monday with that part still intact.
In an initial vote, all Democrats on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee supported an “ought not to pass” recommendation, while two Republicans voted against it. But after lawmakers discussed further options, they agreed to take a new vote.
After batting around suggestions to send the matter to the Legislature’s education committee or the Maine Board of Education, the committee voted unanimously to recommend that the full Legislature not pass the bill. That vote very likely dooms the proposal, as it’s rare for the Legislature to reject a committee’s unanimous recommendation against passage.
While Republicans on the committee spoke in favor of Arata’s intent, they shared Democrats’ concerns about the criminal component.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve made this something it isn’t,” Rep. Richard Pickett, R-Dixfield, said during the Monday morning work session on the bill.
He suggested that Arata’s bill is not about censorship, as some witnesses testified last week, but “simply about a parental right to know when something is going to be presented to their child,” he said, adding that he’s “not comfortable with the punishment part.”
Sen. Michael Carpenter, D-Houlton, said, “I understand what Rep. Arata is trying to get at, and I have sympathy for it,” but changing state state law to criminalize this act and changing the state’s education policy “is not the purview of this committee,” and altering the criminal code “would be a mistake.”
Rather than change the criminal code to bring punitive charges against teachers, committee members urged Arata to reach out to the state Board of Education with her concerns. She also has the option to file an after-deadline bill to send to the education committee, which would require approval from the Legislative Council.
In a phone call after the work session, Arata said she felt her bill had been “misinterpreted from the beginning.”
She plans to draft a new bill requiring teachers get “informed consent” from a parent or guardian and the student before distributing obscene material, but removing the criminal aspect.
“It was never my intent to have anybody go to jail,” Arata said.
Instead, she sought to raise awareness around the issue so parents will know to “pay more attention and ask questions.”
The bill now moves to the House for a vote on the committee’s recommendation.