Penguin Random House, authors, teachers' union sue Iowa over ban on books depicting sexuality and gender

By limiting publications on sexual orientation and gender identity, the lawsuit says, the law “discriminates against LGBTQ+ viewpoints and authors"

Representative image (photo: DW)
Representative image (photo: DW)

NH Digital

Penguin Random House, a major US publisher, has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a law in the US state of Iowa that restricts the availability of certain books in public schools.

The lawsuit, which includes a student, teachers, and bestselling authors like John Green and Jodi Picoult and the Iowa State Education Association — the state’s teachers union representing 50,000 current and former public-school educators — argues that the law signed by governor Kim Reynolds in May unlawfully denies students access to literature that “portrays and describes critical aspects of the human experience”.

By limiting publications on sexual orientation and gender identity, the lawsuit says, the law “discriminates against LGBTQ+ viewpoints and authors".

This lawsuit is the second within a week to contest the law, which bans books with sexual content in all grades, except for religious texts. Controversially, the ban extends beyond 'sexual content' per se, ie the graphic depiction of sex acts, to cover depictions and discussions of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

That religious texts are exempt, critics point out, also mainstreams a cis-gender, heterosexual set of narratives (for the most part) and implicitly equates certain orientations and identities with being 'irreligious' or 'immoral'.

Reynolds, a Republican who signed the law known as SF 496, defended it stating that nothing in the law should be construed as controversial. “Protecting children from pornography and sexually explicit content shouldn’t be controversial," she said. “Books with graphic descriptions of sex acts have absolutely no place in our schools."

However, the law, effective from this fall, bans sexually explicit books — and restricts educators from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation with students up to grade VI.

Additionally, school administrators must notify parents if students seek changes in pronouns or names.

The ban on the books (as opposed to discussions) covers all grades, prohibiting any description or depiction of sex, regardless of context or fiction/nonfiction categorisation.

What the law says

SF 496 mandates "age-appropriate" books in K-12 school libraries, excluding those that contain “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act”. Employees who refuse to comply with the law’s provisions could face enhanced disciplinary action, including termination and the loss of professional licenses.

The Penguin Random House lawsuit targets portions of the bill that call for books to be removed from school libraries and classrooms, arguing the law violates the First and Fourtheenth Amendments to the US Constitution.

The Iowa State Educators Association, a teachers' union, claims the law's broad provisions forced districts to remove a wide range of acclaimed novels like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, James Joyce’s Ulysses and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Mike Beranek, the president of the association, expressed ISEA's support for the expertise of educators and librarians to CNN. Unlike legislators, he says, these professionals are actually trained to determine what content is appropriate for children of different ages.

Schools already have in place systems that allow parents to object to their children reading books the parents find objectionable, he told NBC news, adding, "We stand firmly on the side of the experts in our schools and the parents supporting their children. We take issue with a law that also censors materials for everyone else’s child."

“It’s created the paradox that 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,” Dan Novack, an attorney for and vice president of Penguin Random House, told NBC news.

"A responsibility to stand up for the rights of queer readers"

Award-winning author Malinda Lo's novel Last Night at the Telegraph Club, depicting a Chinese-American girl discovering her attraction to women in the 1950s McCarthy era, has been banned in numerous US districts.

“In the two years since it won the (2021) National Book Award (in Young People’s Literature), it has been banned, challenged, or restricted in over 40 school districts and communities across the country, including six in Iowa alone,” Lo said in a statement.

She added that she joined the lawsuit because she feels “a responsibility to (her) queer and Asian-American readers — a responsibility to stand up for them and their rights to read about people like them.”

Novelist Laurie Halse Anderson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit whose book Speak about a young teenage rape victim has been banned from several Iowa schools, put it more bluntly. “I think that anybody who finds a book about a 13-year-old rape survivor as being pornographic needs some professional help,” Anderson told NBC news.

Meanwhile, the Iowa department of education has reaffirmed its dedication to limiting children's access to books it deems inappropriate. In a statement, the agency asserted, “Senate File 496 keeps explicit books and materials with graphic descriptions of sex acts out of the hands of children in school. The Iowa Department of Education will continue to implement this law as statutorily required."

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