21st February 2024

The Iowa State Education Association and Penguin Random House filed a lawsuit in federal court Thursday challenging parts of an state law prohibiting books that depict sex acts from being available in Iowa K-12 school libraries.

It’s the second lawsuit filed against Senate File 496 this week. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Lambda Legal also filed a suit seeking to block enforcement of certain provisions contained in the sweeping education law.

The Penguin Random House case is specifically challenging the new regulations created by the law on books available in school libraries and classrooms. The ACLU of Iowa and Lambda Legal’s case also contests measures like the requirement for schools to inform a student’s parents if they request to use a different name or pronouns than what they were given at birth,

The Iowa law states that books that include written and visual depictions of sex acts are not allowed on school library shelves – with an exemption for religious texts like the Bible, Torah and Qur’an.

“Senate File 496 is a book ban, plain and simple,” said Dan Novack, vice president and associate general counsel at Penguin Random House. “It blocks any book containing a so-called ‘sexual act’ from all library shelves regardless of context. It’s also created the paradox of, under Iowa law, a 16- year-old student is old enough to consent to sex but not old enough to read about it in school.”

Novack argued the new restrictions violate the constitutional rights of free speech and equal protection clauses through unreasonable government interference into the exchange and access of certain ideas.

Concerns about “obscenity” and inappropriate materials available in K-12 schools is already addressed under legal precedent through the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller vs. California, Novack said, which establishes a three-part test to determine whether media is obscene: if it appeals to “pruient interests,” if it describes sexual conduct in an offensive way, and if it lacks “serious” literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

That third category is what state laws like Iowa are leaving out, Novack said.

“What we’re insisting on is, let’s follow the rules as set out by the court which have guided, you know, our industry and other creative industries for half a century now,” he said. “Because those are rules that allow for a contextual analysis where people, if they want to engage with any given book, they can do that. That is their right, as a district, to look at a book individually and figure out if, as a whole, it lacks serious artistic, political, scientific or literary value.

“They’re not doing that. That’s not what the law allows. And in fact, it compels the opposite.”

During the legislative session, parent advocates with organizations like Moms for Liberty spoke about their experiences challenging books in their local school districts. Five mothers described going through their school “reconsideration” processes at a February hearing, the procedure for determining if a book should be restricted by age or parental consent, or be fully removed.

Some school districts decided that books the parents considered “pornographic” had sufficient value to remain on school shelves. Books brought for reconsideration include “The Bluest Eye,” “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “Gender Queer,” “Fun Home” and “Lawn Boy.”

Four authors whose books have been removed from Iowa school libraries – Laurie Halse Anderson, author of “Speak” and “Shout,” John Green – “Looking for Alaska” and “The Fault in Our Stars,” Malinda Lo of “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” and Jodi Picoult of “19 Minutes” – are serving as plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the State of Iowa.

Anderson said banning books like hers not only abridges First Amendment rights for students, but also could prevent students in traumatic situations from seeking help. The author said she wrote “Speak,” a fictional story about a 13-year-old girl struggling to speak about being raped, because she was raped at that age.

Since writing the book, thousands of readers have told her that books like “Speak” have helped them talk about their experiences and find needed support.

“When confronted with challenging topics like sexual violence, some people prefer to stick their heads in the sand,” Anderson said. “That makes children vulnerable to predators. … The families of Iowa deserve robust, well-curated libraries in their communities, in their schools and in their classrooms. The families of Iowa have the right to supervise and choose what their own children are reading, of course, but no one group of parents or politicians as the right to limit the books available to other citizens.”

The novel “Speak” has been removed from schools 14 times. Anderson’s memoir, “Shout,” has been removed from two schools.

Alongside the best-selling authors and Penguin Random House, the largest American publishing company, the ISEA, three Iowa educators, and a current Iowa high school student are also plaintiffs in the case.

ISEA President Mike Beranek said while parents are allowed to make choices for their own children’s consumption of books and material they disagree with, the law is preventing all Iowa students from developing critical thinking skills and encountering different perspectives, identities and opinions.

“We know parental choice and involvement are critical to a child’s success in school,” Beranek said. “We also know that there are systems in school districts across the state that specifically outline how a parent or guardian can object to their student participating or reading a book they feel is not appropriate for their child. We take issue with a law that also censors materials for everyone else’s child.”

Beranek said the association was in the fight to advocate for Iowa students and school libraries “for the long run.”

In addition to the Iowa lawsuit, Penguin Random House is also a plaintiff in lawsuits filed by PEN America, a nonprofit focused on freedom of expression, against book bans in a Florida school district and board, and in cases with Association of American Publishers challenging Texas and Arkansas state laws.

“We are under no illusion that everything is going to break in our direction in every instance,” Novack said. “And so, I think that the activity level and the breadth of activity reflect a realism that we have: to plant a lot of seeds, make the case loudly and strongly everywhere.”