In Henrico, Virginia Senate candidates battle over ‘banning books’ accusation

Dunnavant sends legal threat over ad accusing her of supporting censorship in schools

By: - October 11, 2023 4:58 pm

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, held a news conference with supporters Wednesday morning to call for “honesty in politics.” (Graham Moomaw/Virginia Mercury)

A recent Virginia law dealing with sexually explicit books in K-12 schools is becoming the latest flashpoint in a high-profile state Senate race between Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Dunnavant said she’s sending a cease and desist letter to the VanValkenburg campaign and TV stations airing a new ad that claims the 2022 law Dunnavant wrote inspired “MAGA Republicans” across the state to ban and censor books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

“As a teacher, Schuyler VanValkenburg knows the difference one book can make for a child,” says the ad from VanValkenburg, a civics teacher at Henrico County’s Glen Allen High School.

An ad from the campaign of Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico accuses Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, of fueling a wave of book banning in Virginia.

Dunnavant said the accusations about school books are part of a pattern of misrepresentation and “deceptiveness” by VanValkenburg’s campaign. She said the bill she wrote, which requires schools to notify parents of reading assignments that contain sexually explicit content, includes a line saying it should not be understood as “requiring or providing for the censoring of books.”

“It’s in the law. Those are my words. I put that amendment on the bill,” Dunnavant said. “This is an absolute false accusation.”

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, VanValkenburg’s campaign stood by the ad’s veracity.

“If you give extremists the tools to promote hate and sow division, they will use them,” the campaign said. “We encourage Senator Dunnavant to reflect on the tool she provided to the most extreme right flank of her party and take responsibility for doing so.”

The fight over the book bill, which Republicans hailed as a victory in their push to strengthen parental rights, is the latest pointed exchange in a competitive district that could be critical in determining partisan control of the Senate. The suburban district west of Richmond leans Democratic despite having a Republican incumbent, and flipping it would help Democrats preserve or expand their 22-18 Senate majority.

The book dispute centers on confusion over how local schools should implement the policies Dunnavant’s law envisioned. Some school officials, perhaps most notably the superintendent in Spotsylvania County, have cited the law to justify a broader scouring of books in school libraries with the aim of flagging and removing sexually explicit material, even when the sexual content is a small part of a broader work of literature.

[Read more: School districts struggled to implement new laws on sexually explicit books]

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia has said Spotsylvania is misinterpreting the law, while also criticizing the bill as an open-ended rule nudging schools toward more restrictive book policies.

Though the legislation was aimed at books actually being used in class, it was passed in an atmosphere of broader pushback against books found on the shelves of school libraries.

The 2022 bill required the Virginia Department of Education to craft model policies ensuring parents are notified if their child is assigned a book with sexually explicit content. It also gives parents the right to opt their child out of such assignments and request alternative reading material.

The state-designed policy, which local school officials are directed to use as a guide for their own notification policies for sexually explicit “instructional material,” lays out when it should apply to library books. The notification rule applies when library books are used “for completion of an assignment” or “as part of an academic or extracurricular program.”

Dunnavant took particular exception to VanValkenburg’s mention of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” saying she read the book to her own children before a visit to the Amsterdam site where Frank hid from the Nazis.

“I ask voters to use their own common sense measure of truth,” Dunnavant said.


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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.