Book publisher, Iowans suing state over book bans

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By Nikoel Hytrek

November 30, 2023

A second lawsuit against portions of an education law passed by Iowa Republicans and signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds just dropped this week.

Penguin Random House, a major US book publisher, filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging SF 496 for banning some of the publishers’ books from Iowa schools.

Joining the lawsuit were the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), an Iowa high school student, two Iowa middle school teachers, an Iowa K-12 librarian, and bestselling young adult authors Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Jodi Picoult, and Malinda Lo.

The lawsuit follows another announced Tuesday that targets other anti-LGBTQ+ portions of SF 496 as well.

What’s in this lawsuit?

The lawsuit asserts SF 496 violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution because:

  • it restricts access to constitutionally protected books based on their content,
  • discriminates against LGBTQ+ viewpoints and authors,
  • and the language in the law is “unconstitutionally vague.”

The suit seeks to have courts block the provisions of the law that concern school and classroom libraries.

How does SF 496 ban books?

SF 496 bans books from schools if they have “descriptions or depictions of a sex act,” as defined in Iowa criminal code. Many Republicans have argued that standard is straightforward, but the suit argues the age-appropriate standard is too vague and it includes no language to clarify what counts as the description or depiction of a sex act.

That ambiguity has led to different interpretations in districts across the state, and books have been banned for even having a sentence referring to sex.

The laws also bans information about sexual orientation and gender identity up to the sixth grade, and the lawsuit points out that books with LGBTQ+ characters aren’t explicitly mentioned, but many schools have banned those books regardless.

Because of these bans, the lawsuit argues, “Senate File 496 is having a chilling effect on protected First Amendment activity. As a result of Senate File 496, school districts throughout Iowa are erring on the side of censorship to avoid the substantial penalties that librarians and teachers may face if the ‘wrong’ books are made available to students in school libraries and classroom collections.”

Why Republicans are wrong about ‘pornography’ in schools

Iowa Republicans, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, have said the law is necessary to “remove pornography from schools,” but the suit points out that none of the books that have been banned in Iowa meet the legal definition of pornography or obscenity.

Dan Novack, associate general counsel for Penguin Random House, explained how the US Supreme Court has established rules for determining obscenity, and how SF 496 skips the third step.

Those rules—called the Miller test—are:

  1. whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient—excessive sexual—interest;
  2. whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and
  3. whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

“There is no analysis,” Novack said. “It is a complete collapse of context that creates a binary. Does this book have the thing that we find distasteful? If so, do not pass go, go directly to jail. What we’re insisting on is, let’s follow the rules as set out by the court, which have guided our industry and other creative industries for half a century now, because those are rules that allow for contextual analysis.”

“They’re not doing that,” he continued. “That’s not what the law allows, and—in fact—it compels the opposite. Don’t look deeper than a single sentence if that’s what is causing concern.”

How schools actually make sure books are appropriate

Novack and ISEA President Mike Beranek also pointed out that Iowa schools have processes in place for challenging and reviewing books if community members have concerns about them.

Books are also selected and reviewed by the professional librarians who order them for their schools.

“Once we begin this conversation about one book or about one topic, we really begin to lose sight of what democracy is and what the First Amendment means,” Beranek said.

Penguin Random House is also a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Escambia County in Florida, filed by PEN America. That case is against that particular county and school district, not a state law.

Similarities with the ACLU lawsuit

On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa filed a lawsuit on behalf of seven Iowa families and a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group on similar grounds. That lawsuit seeks to block the full law. Both cases have been filed in federal district court in the Southern District of Iowa.

Novack said this case differs because of its narrower focus on the book banning portions of the law, but he said their interests are complementary.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that this case will turn upon a fairly simple question: Does the First Amendment apply in school libraries?” Novack asked. “If the answer to that is ‘no,’ then Americans deserve to know the answer to that question is ‘no.'”

However, he added he was confident in the case because, “The answer has always been ‘yes.’”

  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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