The Problem With Jake Chapman’s ‘Obscenity’ Claim

Republican State Sen. Jake Chapman has vowed to create legislation to criminally penalize teachers and school staffers with felonies for distributing materials he considers “obscene.”

Chapman, who is president of the Iowa Senate, says his definition of obscene is based on Iowa Code Chapter 728.

The materials in question: Books penned by authors of color and/or the LGTBQ community, some of which describe their experiences learning about their sexuality, instances of sexual abuse, and experiences with racism.

Chapman, in a now-viral video, goes full Helen Lovejoy and essentially asks “won’t someone please think of the children?”

Mind you, Chapman made this speech to a room full of educators and parents in a district he does not actually represent.

Again, Chapman says his views are based on Iowa Code and with the sole intent of protecting kids, but let’s find out what Iowa Code Chapter 728 says and whether it actually applies to the areas Chapman says it does.

What is considered obscene material in Iowa?

Obscene material, legally speaking, is “any material depicting or describing the genitals, sex acts, masturbation, excretory functions or sadomasochistic abuse which the average person, taking the material as a whole and applying contemporary community standards with respect to what is suitable material for minors, would find appeals to the prurient interest and is patently offensive; and the material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.”

So, porn?

Yes, basically porn. I think we all agree adults should not provide porn to children.

So, is Chapman legally correct in calling the books obscene?

That’s a hard “no.” If you read the last part of that definition again, you see it excludes materials that lack “serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.” Now, I’m no legal eagle, but to me, it would seem that these books don’t meet the definition since they are works of serious literature and provide artistic expression.

There’s also the “taken as a whole” aspect. Chapman and others have solely focused on a few passages, often without context for the larger book or how those passages or scenes fit in.

Isn’t that just your opinion?

Between conversations about Waukee and Johnston, altogether Chapman and local activists have come after five books so far.

One of the LGTBQ books in question, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” has won a slew of awards, topped many recommended reading lists, and was named an Amazon Best Book of the Year (remember when Amazon was only known for books?). So that seems to be a serious work of literature.

There are similar accolades for the other books being targeted.

Well, what about the graphic sexual scene Chapman is demanding the media show?

You’re probably talking about the sex scene in the “Gender Queer” graphic novel. The scene depicts two consenting adult characters engaging one another, but doesn’t actually show any nudity unless you count one character wearing a rubber strap—


Yes, but let me finish.

Give it a shot, but that seems pretty cut-and-dry in favor of Mr. Chapman’s point.

Yes, taken out of context, that can be an extremely startling visual to some, especially if that’s the only image you see, but it has a purpose. The book’s author, Maia Kobabe, is queer and nonbinary and wanted to give young people who identify similarly a positive example of working through questions of their own sexuality and experiences.

Kobabe explained as much to the Texas Tribune:

“A person can more quickly flip it open, see one or two images that they disagree with and then decide that the book is not good without actually reading it,” Kobabe said. “To people who are challenging the book, please read the whole book and judge it based on the entire contents, not just a tiny snippet.”

Several critics have also falsely claimed this scene depicts underage sex—it does not; the scene occurs while the narrator was in graduate school and is clearly an adult. Another clue that perhaps the critics didn’t read the whole book or even the pages preceding this scene.

Well, I haven’t read it but I still don’t like it!

Listen, just read it and get the proper context. Grab a copy from your local library before some zealot tries to burn it.

Also, you can check out this handy guide we created here at Iowa Starting Line.

Lastly, I can assure your high school kids have seen much more explicit visuals in science textbooks or on TV and they can access actual pornography on their phones if they wanted to.

You make a good point about the phones, but still, why should the library have that content?

If you recall, Mr. Chapman’s argument is “legal” in nature, right?


Well, that same law he cites actually excludes public libraries and educational institutions.

You’re making that up, why would a state senator use the law as an excuse but exclude part of it?

No, it’s true! Here’s the full text of Iowa Code Chapter 728, Section 7:

“Nothing in this chapter prohibits the use of appropriate material for educational purposes in any accredited school, or any public library, or in any educational program in which the minor is participating. Nothing in this chapter prohibits the attendance of minors at an exhibition or display of art works or the use of any materials in any public library.”

Oh, wow!


Well, you already noted you are no “legal eagle,” so how do libraries interpret this law?

Great question! I asked the Iowa Library Association (ILA) about this. I spoke with Amanda Vazquez, who sits on the ILA’s executive committee and chairs its intellectual freedom committee.

And what did she say?

“As you said, libraries are currently excluded from that because they are forums for ‘voluntary inquiry,’” Vazquez said.

What does voluntary inquiry mean?

Basically, no one is forcing you or someone you care about to look at certain materials that you don’t like or agree with.

Man, Mr. Chapman’s legal argument isn’t looking good…

It gets better! Amanda also noted this matter had been settled by the US Supreme Court in 1982.

The US Supreme Court? As in the highest court in the country?


What was the ruling?

In Island Trees School District v. Pico, the Supreme Court ruled the First Amendment limits the power of junior high and high school officials to remove books from school libraries because of their content.

Essentially, kids also have First Amendment rights!

Oh, wow!

Right? Also, Vazquez noted a library carrying materials is not necessarily an endorsement of the materials’ ideas, but it is done as part of—here’s that phrase again— voluntary inquiry, which was a term the Supreme Court noted in its ruling.

“Libraries seek to provide materials for all different users with all of their different information, interests, and needs,” Vazquez said. “Individuals and their families should determine what they find appropriate and that should not be hampered by other people’s consideration as inappropriate for themselves or their families.”

So basically, Chapman’s legal argument falls short?

Only if you’re going by what the Iowa Code says and a US Supreme Court ruling.


by Ty Rushing

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3 Comments on "The Problem With Jake Chapman’s ‘Obscenity’ Claim"

  • Actual facts! Really, thanks for the update. Looks like Brad Zaun is similarly afflicted with the same disease. bookburnitis

  • Just another far right extremist, trying to foist their distorted view of the world upon everyone. You do not have the right to make your own informed view. I want you to only experience my narrow view of the world. Either that or he is just spewing diatribe to pander to the right.

  • It seems to me that Mr. Chapman is not proposing actual legislation. I’ll give him the benefit-of-the-doubt and assume that he knows his “proposal” is unConstitutional.

    What I am further assuming is that Mr. Chapman is creating an issue to be used in some future campaign ad.

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