Federal judge hears arguments in lawsuit challenging Iowa book law

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Written by ROBIN OPSAHL Iowa Capital Dispatch

A U.S. District Court judge heard oral arguments Friday about whether to stop enforcement of measures in an Iowa education law that ban certain books with sexual content from K-12 school libraries.

The lawsuit challenges sections of Senate File 496 that require schools to remove books with depictions of sex acts. It also challenges a provision requiring schools to inform parents if a student requests the use of a different name or pronouns than what they were assigned at birth. The lawsuit claims those and other measures violate Iowa students’ constitutional rights to equal protection, free speech, free association and due process, the lawsuit claims.

The challenge was filed in November by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Lambda Legal on behalf of eight Iowa students and families and the LGBTQ student advocate group Iowa Safe Schools.

Judge Stephen Locher of the the U.S. District Court Southern District of Iowa heard arguments on the plaintiff’s request for a temporary injunction that would block enforcement of the law until the court issues a ruling on the suit.

“This would give students and schools in Iowa some measure of relief that they don’t need to worry about the enforcement of the law, while the court considers the larger and deeper constitutional impacts of this law,” Nathan Maxwell, an attorney with Lambda Legal, said in a news conference Friday. “And ultimately, hopefully, we of course expect that the law would be entirely blocked. But this would provide temporary relief while we litigate.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the bill into law in May. Though some Iowa school districts have already removed books from school library shelves to comply with the law, enforcement has not yet officially started.

Daniel Johnston, an attorney representing the state, argued in court Friday that some districts had been applying the new law too broadly in removing books from library shelves, according to the Des Moines Register. Locher asked Johnston to answer questions about specific existing books in school libraries and hypothetical books that might depict involve sex acts.

Books like the “The Rape of Nanking,” by Iris Chang which has descriptions of Japanese war crimes against Chinese civilians during World War II, or classics like “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut could be removed if they contain descriptions of sex acts defined by the law, including acts of penetration and contact between a person’s genitalia and another person’s hand or mouth.

Books that have a gay character but do not have descriptions of sexual acts do not need to be removed from school libraries, Johnston said, but such books could not be read to a class of students in Kindergarten through 6th grade under the law.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2024, the state Department of Education will have the authority to investigate complaints about school districts and staff violating the law. Those found in violation would be first issued a written warning, and subsequent violations would result in a Board of Educational Examiners ethics investigation and potential disciplinary action.

While school staff and teachers have asked the Iowa Department of Education to clarify the rules about acceptable books and school materials, the State Board of Education members said reported violations will be addressed on a “case-by-case basis.”

Iowa State Education Association President Mike Beranek said in a news release Friday that allowing enforcement of the law puts teachers at risk of losing their job.

“Should a public school employee make the wrong guess about which books are not allowed in their classroom or school library, they could lose their job, teaching license, and career,” Beranek said in a statement.”

The ISEA is involved in another lawsuit, led by publisher Penguin Random House, challenging the book restriction measures. The judge heard from both plaintiffs’ attorneys and lawyers for the state of Iowa Friday. Legal advocates said in a news conference Friday that the judge indicated that he will reach a decision on the injunction by or before the enforcement date, Jan. 1.

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