A federal judge will write the next chapter for Iowa’s book ban law

A federal judge will write the next chapter for Iowa’s book ban law

Two lawsuits aim to block the state from enforcing SF 496, which bans books with sexual content and prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in K-6.

A federal judge plans to decide by Jan. 1 whether to block enforcement of a new education law that bans books containing sexual acts from school libraries and prohibits instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity in K-6 classrooms.

The hearing in a Des Moines courtroom Friday combined arguments in two separate lawsuits challenging SF 496 as unconstitutional.

One legal challenge, from Iowa Safe Schools and a group of LGBTQ students, claims the law has eroded the inclusive school environments of students who are gay or transgender, and has suppressed the free expression of their identities.

Another lawsuit from teachers, a student and the publisher Penguin Random House argues the law creates an unreasonably strict standard for what books are allowed in school libraries. The text of the law itself, one attorney argued, would be banned.

Here’s a summary of some of the arguments made in court.

Government speech

Iowa Assistant Attorney General Daniel Johnston argued the law’s ban on libraries containing “any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act,” as it is defined in Iowa criminal code, has accomplished what was intended.

“Books with graphic images of oral sex were circulating in Iowa schools, and before this law schools were refusing to remove them,” Johnston said.

Johnston referred to Gender Queer, an illustrated memoir by Maia Kobabe that has been a regular target of parents and lawmakers supporting SF 496. The book about Kobabe discovering eir nonbinary identity includes panels depicting oral sex.

Judge Stephen Locher pointed out that districts have removed hundreds more books in addition to Gender Queer, including Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize winning novels. He asked if it is appropriate for schools to have removed such revered titles.

It probably was, Johnston said, if those books violate the text of SF 496. Although, he added, he also suspects some districts have read the law too broadly and have “over-removed” books.

It is up to the legislature, not a judge, to decide what is appropriate for school libraries, Johnston said. He claimed that the book policies in SF 496 are a form of government speech, which protects it from First Amendment claims.

ACLU of Iowa attorney Thomas Story disputed that idea outside the courthouse in downtown Des Moines.

“It’s outrageous,” Story said. “If this were government speech then it is discriminatory speech. If this were government speech then the government could remove every book, everything from your kids’ libraries, and that is not at all consistent with the Constitution.”

Attorney Fred Sperling, who argued the case for Penguin Random House, said in the hearing that a school library cannot be taken as an expression of the government’s point of view because the books in a library often present opposing views, or views which the government disagrees with.

He gave the example of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. It may be reasonable to include in a library for the study of anti-Semitism or the rise of Nazism, he said, but it would not be expected to represent the point of view of the State of Iowa.

You can read the full article at Iowa Public Radio.