Barnes & Noble Sued for Selling “Obscene” Banned Books

Virginia legislators are filing a lawsuit to stop the book chain from selling two frequently banned books to minors for being too “obscene”.

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A Congressional candidate in Virginia is suing Barnes & Noble to attempt to restrict sales of two books labeled “obscene”. Tommy Altman, a tattoo artist, minister, and Air Force veteran, is running for Congress in Virginia’s 2nd district, and has filed a lawsuit against the book chain for selling two books banned by some schools and libraries to minors without parental consent. One of the books, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, is a memoir that explores gender and LGBT themes. The other, A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas, is a fantasy novel deemed sexually explicit. The case could set a precedent for banned books to be censored beyond just libraries and schools.

What Is the Lawsuit About?

On May 18, Tommy Altman announced via Facebook that he is suing Barnes & Noble and Virginia Beach Schools “to enjoin them from selling or loaning these books to minors without parent consent”. The next day, a judge ruled that there is cause to sue on grounds of obscenity, meaning that the case will go forward. Specifically, Altman alleges that Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury are “obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors”. Tim Anderson, a lawyer and Virginia House Delegate, is acting as the attorney for the case. This suit is not the first sign of trouble for either book, one of which was named the #1 most challenged book of 2021.

The Response

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Barnes & Noble responded to the lawsuit in a statement to CBS, saying that they carry thousands of titles some might find “objectionable”. “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”, the statement reads. Additionally, one of the affected authors, Maia Kobabe (e/em/eir), said that banning eir book will negatively affect LGBT young people. “When you remove those books from the shelf or you challenge them publicly in a community, what you’re saying to any young person who identified with that narrative is, ‘We don’t want your story here,” Kobabe stated.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

The first banned book, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe.
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Gender Queer is an autobiographical graphic novel that details the author’s discovery of eir gender identity and sexual orientation. This memoir began as a guide for eir family when e came out to them. However, the book is also a helpful tool for questioning young people figuring out eir own identity. According to the American Library Association. Gender Queer was the most challenged book of 2021 for its LGBT content and explicit illustrations. In fact, LGBT content is the most cited reason for banning books, with half of the most challenged books of 2021 listing LGBT themes as the primary reason for restriction.

A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

The second banned book, A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas.
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A Court of Mist and Fury is the second book in Sarah J. Maas’s fantasy series A Court of Thorns and Roses. Reviewers described the book as “sexy” and “action-packed”, and it contains magic, political intrigue, and conflict between humans and the High Fae. While the series frequently makes the New York Times bestseller list, some schools and libraries banned A Court of Mist and Fury when it came out in 2016 for explicit content in its sex scenes. Unlike Kobabe, Maas did not make a statement about the lawsuit.

This Lawsuit Might Be Just the Beginning

Restricting these books would come at the same time as campaigns around the country to “protect” children from LGBT content. However, this would be the first time that a private business was prevented from selling books, not just schools or libraries. That could set a precedent that would mean more banned books unavailable to more people. In fact, for Altman and Anderson, this lawsuit seems like only the first step. “We are in a major fight,” Anderson wrote on Facebook last week. “Suits like this can be filed all over Virginia. There are dozens of books. Hundreds of schools.”

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