Last week a federal judge in Iowa blocked a sweeping school book ban from taking effect in state’s public school system.
The law, known as Senate File 496, was was enacted with much fanfare after Iowa politicians consulted with the “extremist” group Moms For Liberty, which seeks to foment culture war against LGBTQ+ Americans under the guise of “protecting children.” The statute bars school libraries from carrying books which depict “sex acts” and prohibits “any program, curriculum, test, survey, questionnaire, promotion, or instruction relating to gender identity or sexual orientation to students in kindergarten through grade six.”
As Judge Stephen Locher noted, the book ban has already led to the removal of “hundreds of books from school libraries, including, among others, nonfiction history books, classic works of fiction, Pulitzer Prize winning contemporary novels, books that regularly appear on Advanced Placement exams, and even books designed to help students avoid being victimized by sexual assault.” It is more than a little ironic that a law designed to “protect” kids has led to the removal of not only 1984 but also books designed to help young adults avoid sexual violence, such as The Truth About Rape.
Meanwhile, the ban on “promoting” gender identity caused a wave of self-censorship, as educators removed pride flags and canceled LGBTQ+ clubs in an attempt to avoid falling foul of the nebulously worded statute.
This assault on conservatives’ new favorite hobby was lodged by two sets of plaintiffs. A group of LGBTQ+ students and their parents represented by Lambda Legal and the ACLU sued on November 28, claiming that the law chills student speech through unlawful viewpoint discrimination. They were followed two days later by a consortium consisting of Penguin Random House, several authors whose books have been removed, and local educators, who challenged the statute on both First Amendment and due process grounds.
While the plaintiffs and the student defendants agreed that the law is intended to target LGBTQ+ content specifically, Judge Locher’s opinion largely ignored the “groomer” discourse swirling around the issue. Instead the court found that the plain language of the statute is so broad that it not only bars descriptions of any relationship, gay or straight, but it functionally bans the use of pronouns at all.
“Based on the neutral definitions of ‘gender identity’ and ‘sexual orientation,’ Senate File 496 unambiguously prohibits instruction relating to any gender identity (cisgender or transgender) and any sexual orientation (gay or straight),” he wrote.
“This would include, for example, teachers or other licensed professionals like the Educator Plaintiffs who make books available to students that refer to any character’s gender or sexual orientation; which is to say, virtually every book ever written,” the court went on. “Similarly, a math teacher will have violated the law by requiring students to take an exam stating that Sally bought eight apples and ate three and asking how many ‘she’ has left. This is a forbidden ‘test . . . relating to gender identity.’”
Noting that the court “cannot interpret Senate File 496 as targeting transgender identities and homosexual relationships without substituting the Court’s own choice of words for the ones chosen by the Legislature,” Judge Locher struck the provision of the law banning “promotion” of gender identity as void for vagueness.
The book ban issue is not so simple. Judge Locher attempted to parse the competing SCOTUS and Eighth Circuit decisions, concluding that the various plaintiffs were differently situated. In the end, the court went with a “obscenity-light” standard, reasoning that the kids are being deprived of access to literally any book besides the Bible that depicts or describes sex at all under a “statewide law with across-the-board implications for publishers, authors, teachers, and students—as opposed to an isolated decision about an individual book by a local school board.”
“The State Defendants have not identified, nor has the Court been able to locate, a single case upholding school library restrictions as broad as those set forth in Senate File 496,” he wrote. “In essence, the Iowa Legislature has used a bulldozer where school boards in prior cases merely employed a scalpel.”
The court left intact a provision of the law which would require schools to out gay and trans kids to their parents, because none of the plaintiffs had standing to challenge it — all of the kids who sued here are out to their parents.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds pronounced herself “extremely disappointed” with Judge Locher’s ruling.
“There should be no question that books containing sexually explicit content — as clearly defined in Iowa law — do not belong in a school library for children. The fact that we’re even arguing these issues is ridiculous,” she fumed. “The real debate should be about why society is so intent on over-sexualizing our young children.”
She did not explain why it’s acceptable for libraries to stock a Bronze Age tome that describes a father offering his daughters to be gang raped by a mob and later impregnating them in a cave during a night of drunken debauchery.
Won’t someone think of the children!
Penguin Random House, LLC v. Robbins [Docket via Court Listener]
GLBT Youth in Iowa Schools Task Force v. Reynolds [Docket via Court Listener]
Liz Dye lives in Baltimore where she writes the Law and Chaos substack and appears on the Opening Arguments podcast.