Nation’s Largest Publisher, Teachers’ Union Are Aligned in Fighting Iowa Law on Book Bans

Staff Writer
Banned books

A major publishing house and a state teachers’ union have united in opposition to an Iowa law that bans books depicting sexual activity from school libraries and classrooms. 

Penguin Random House — the nation’s largest publisher — is suing the Iowa State Board of Education over the law, saying it violates the First and 14th Amendments. 

The list of plaintiffs in the federal case include the Iowa State Education Association — which is affiliated with the National Education Association and represents 50,000 current and former public school educators — as well as bestselling novelists Jodi Picoult and John Green, and other authors, teachers, and a student. 

“This law is wrong and has a detrimental effect specifically on students and their ability to access reading materials that might reflect their experiences or those that they’re unfamiliar with,” said Dan Gutmann, an educator and one of the plaintiffs challenging the legislation, in an interview.

The law, signed in May by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, banned the use of books that include sexual activity in their content all the way through 12th grade. Under the law, longstanding novels would be pulled from shelves, such as George Orwell’s “1984” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” 

The hearing for this lawsuit, as well as the legal challenge brought by the ACLU, is set for Dec. 22.

In a statement last month about the policy, Reynolds said the law serves to “protect children from pornography and sexually explicit content.” 

Religious texts are exempt from the law’s restrictions. 

Under the legislation, educators are also prohibited from discussing gender identity and sexual orientation with students through 6th grade, and school administrators are required to notify parents if students ask to change their names or pronouns. 

This is the second lawsuit filed in the past week in opposition Iowa’s law. The other was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the entirety of the new law violates the First Amendment rights of students by infringing on free speech and association, and restricting their right to receive information.  

The ACLU also claims the law violates the 14th Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses by discriminating against LGBTQ students. 

One District, More Than 350 Books on a List

Penguin Random House’s lawsuit specifically addresses the bookbanning provision. The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, rather a court order declaring the law unconstitutional. 

Gutmann said he’s seen the effects of this law play out during his time serving on the school board in the Urbandale, Iowa, school system, a position he left last month. 

Earlier this summer, the district had compiled a list of more than 350 books to be removed from classrooms and libraries, all of which were said to have violated the state law because they depict sex acts or include lessons about LGBTQ identities for students younger than 7th grade. 

The book included a children’s biography of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the first openly LGBTQ Senate-confirmed person to lead a federal department and hold a Cabinet-level position. 

Following pushback from the school board and the community, the district has since revised that action — narrowing that list down to 65 titles, which include depictions of sex acts as specifically defined in the law. The district has also paused the removal of LGBTQ content and issued a statement announcing that they’d wait for guidance from the state before taking further action. 

The Iowa State Board of Education has since issued guidance, releasing an outline on Nov. 15 of its definition of what constitutes as sexual acts. 

“It’s still very vague,” Gutmann said. “It doesn’t address the issues that made it difficult for school districts to interpret the legislation in the first place … and [the wording] still leaves a lot for debate.” 

Districts have until Jan. 1 to remove all books that contain sexual content. Failure to do so will result in a warning from the Iowa Department of Education for a first offense, and a hearing conducted by the board of educational examiners for further offenses. 

Between now and then, Gutmann, a teacher in the Des Moines Independent Community School District, said he believes districts are moving slowly in removing books from libraries and classrooms. Some may be waiting for the court challenges to play out, in case the law is deemed unconstitutional, he said. 

The hearing for both the publisher’s and union’s lawsuit, as well as the lawsuit brought forth by the ACLU, is set for Dec. 22. 

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Image credit Canva.

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