High Court Spotlights Violence in School Reading Lists

By Erik W. Robelen — June 28, 2011 1 min read
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In case you missed it, the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday, by a vote of 7-2, struck down a California law that bars the sale of violent video games to minors, saying the statute violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech.

“In truth, the California act is the latest in a long series of failed attempts to censor violent entertainment for minors,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority. “This court has never permitted governmental regulation of minors’ access to any forms of entertainment except on obscenity grounds.”

What may be of special interest to readers of this blog was the attention the court drew to violence in some classic literature often found in schools.

After citing several examples from fairy tales, Scalia writes: “High school reading lists are full of similar fare. Homer’s Odysseus blinds Polyphemus the Cyclops by grinding out his eye with a heated stake. In The Inferno, Dante and Virgil watch corrupt politicians struggle to stay submerged beneath a lake of boiling pitch, lest they be skewered by devils above the surface. ... And Golding’s Lord of the Flies recounts how a schoolboy called Piggy is savagely murdered by other children while marooned on an island.”

The opinion even quotes a translation of The Odyssey: “Even so did we seize the fiery-pointed brand and whirled it round in his eye, and the blood flowed about the heated bar. And the breath of the flame singed his eyelids and brows all about, as the ball of the eye burnt away, and the roots thereof crackled in the flame.”

Yeah, I guess the classics can get a little violent from time to time.

But Justice Stephen G. Breyer did not find this particular line of reasoning persuasive.

"[T]he majority’s examples of literary descriptions of violence ... do not show anything relevant at all,” he writes in his dissent. “After all, one can find in literature as many (if not more) descriptions of physical love as descriptions of violence. Indeed, sex ‘has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages’,” he notes, quoting an earlier Supreme Court ruling.

“For every Homer, there is a Titian,” he writes. “For every Dante, there is an Ovid. And for all the teenagers who have read the original versions of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I suspect there are those who know the story of Lady Godiva.”

Image: A Bulletstorm video game is displayed at a store in Palo Alto, Calif.
Paul Sakuma/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.