Penguin Random House, well-known authors sue state over banned book law
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IOWA (WHO) — Penguin Random House and the Iowa State Education Association have filed a lawsuit against the state of Iowa challenging Senate File 496 which bans books containing sexual material from schools. The lawsuit claims the new legislation violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

Several well-known authors whose books have been banned from school classrooms and libraries – Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Malinda Lo, and Jodi Picoult – have joined the lawsuit as well as three Iowa educators, a student, and a parent.

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed SF 496 into law earlier this year. The law prohibits educating students in grades K-6th about gender identity and sexual orientation, requires school districts to inform parents or guardians if a student is using pronouns that were not assigned to them at birth, and bans books containing sexual descriptions or depictions from schools. The law is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.

Penguin Random House and the other plaintiffs are asking for a court order to block the enforcement of the law because they say the ban violates the First Amendment free speech and Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

“The First Amendment guarantees the right to read and to be read,” the plaintiffs state in a press release about the lawsuit. “To exchange ideas and viewpoints without unreasonable government interference. The new Iowa state law flouts this core principle of the Constitution with sweeping legislation that eliminates student access to books with ideas and perspectives disliked by state authorities.”

The lawsuit also claims the state’s Age-Appropriate Standard for determining which books should be banned does not follow the definition of obscene material that was established in the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case of Miller vs. California. The Supreme Court found that in order for a work to be obscene and thus not protected by the First Amendment the work must meet these guidelines: “(a) the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (c) whether the work taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

In the SF 496 law the Age-Appropriate Standard advises schools to remove books that “include any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act as defined in section 702.17.” The Standard does not include the guidelines that were established in the Miller vs. California ruling.

The plaintiffs are also requesting the block because they believe the language in the law is too vague, like ‘relating to gender identity’, and is a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Due Process Clause voids statutes that don’t provide adequate guidance.

Seven families filed a federal lawsuit against the state to block SF 496 from going into effect on Tuesday. The families also requested a temporary injunction as the legal battles unfold.

When reached out for a statement on the developments, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office referred to a statement made earlier this week in response to another challenge:

“Protecting children from pornography and sexually explicit content shouldn’t be controversial. The real controversary (sic) is that it exists in elementary schools. Books with graphic depictions of sex acts have absolutely no place in our schools. If these books were movies, they’d be rated R. The media cannot even air or print excerpts from these books because the content is offensive and inappropriate, yet they promote the narrative that they’re good for kids.” 

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