Something is wrong when a family newspaper won’t publish in this space a book passage that public schools assign to fourteen-year-olds. Last week, a father was arrested at a school board meeting in Laconia, New Hampshire for “disorderly conduct” for exceeding the board’s two-minute speaking limit when commenting on the passage in question. Someone videoed the incident and posted it on Youtube with text of the passage superimposed on the screen. Otherwise I couldn’t have known what it was to which the father, William Baer, so strenuously objected. If you want to read it, you’ll have to watch it:
Hence, the dilemma. Most people won’t ever read it and therefore won’t know what the salacious passage describes: rough sex between a teenage boy and girl. As a teacher and columnist, I was frustrated several times by just this kind of conundrum. Because newspaper standards didn’t allow it, I couldn’t show parents and taxpayers what schools were actually doing with both their children and their tax money. In the book I’m writing, however, I’ve been able to describe appalling examples to which I could only refer obliquely in columns. Once, an editor was ready to dump my column after I wrote a critique of “The Vagina Monologues,” showings of which are paid for by taxpayers at hundreds of public colleges. I considered the column quite restrained compared to the play I was describing.
During his turn to speak, Mr. Baer seemed surprised by the two-minute rule, which he claimed was just for that meeting. Eventually, he passed out copies of the licentious passage to school board members and challenged them to read it, but by that time, the chairwoman, Sue Allen, told him his two minutes were up. He sat down, but after a subsequent speaker accused Baer of wanting to dictate what students could or could not read, Baer spoke up again from his seat claiming the man’s comments were absurd. “No one’s talking about censoring the book. No one’s talking about banning the book or burning the book or anything…” he said. Chairwoman Sue Allen talked over him to ask that he be respectful of other speakers, none of whom had the floor at that time. Baer continued talking and a police officer walked into the seating area and asked him to leave. Baer remained seated and the officer took him by the arm, led him out of the room, then handcuffed him before taking him outside to a cruiser.
Never having seen a police officer at numerous school board meetings over the years when I was teaching in nearby western Maine, I assume the board arranged for the officer to be there for that night. The Laconia Daily Sun had reported two days before the meeting that Mr. Baer intended to ask the board members to read the passage in question and quoted him saying: “I'd like to see them read this. To see them squirm.” However, the video shows him asking the superintendent to read a copy of the notice that went home to parents indicating that the book “depicts high school relationships, some of them unhealthy.”
Baer considered that insufficient warning and after reading the passage, I have to agree with him. He would have been better off using his two minutes to read the passage aloud himself, but maybe he was too embarrassed. It’s that graphic.
Media from all over the United States and Europe reported on Baer’s arrest but none that I read printed the salacious passage. I can’t help but wonder if he’d still have been arrested for reading it aloud without exceeding the two-minute limit. Perhaps not, but most if not all present would have been uncomfortable listening to it.
Baer listens after sitting down
No one can make a judgement about the whole incident without first reading the passage, but it can’t be printed or recited in polite company. Baer had asked the Laconia Daily Sun to print it but, according to the Sun's article: “Editor Ed Engler declined, saying he thought some of the description[s] rendered were not suitable for publication in 99 percent of daily newspapers in America, ‘Maybe 100 percent.’”
Baer claimed the Manchester Union Leader also refused to print it, and asked: ‘It's not fit to print, but it's okay for my daughter to read it and discuss it? My goal is to have everyone in the United States read what's on page 313 of that book ["Nineteen Minutes" by Jodie Picoult],” he declared, ‘except my daughter.’”
Baer's 14-year-old daughter addresses board Teaching fourteen-year-olds for most of my career, I saw many girls reading books by Jodi Picoult. Book critics claim the rough sex act described in “Nineteen Minutes” is not gratuitous but integral to the story line about a fictitious school shooting. I’m not a novelist and I haven’t read the book, but I doubt the scene was necessary.