Federal judge blocks enforcement of Iowa’s book ban law

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Dan Novack, an attorney for the publisher Penguin Random House, speaks with reporters after an injunction hearing against SF 496, an Iowa law that bans schools from having books in their libraries that include descriptions of sexual acts. / Dan Novack, abogado de la editorial Penguin Random House, habla con los periodistas después de una audiencia de orden judicial contra SF 496, una ley de Iowa que prohíbe a las escuelas tener en sus bibliotecas libros que incluyan descripciones de actos sexuales.
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By Grant Gerlock, Iowa Public Radio 

A federal judge has blocked the state of Iowa from enforcing major portions of an education law, SF 496, which has caused school districts to pull hundreds of books from library shelves.

The temporary injunction prevents enforcement of a ban on books with sexually explicit content, which the judge in the case said likely violates the First Amendment. It also blocks a section barring instruction relating to sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school, which he called “void for vagueness.”

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The decision follows a hearing last week that combined arguments from two separate challenges against the law signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds in May. A lawsuit brought by LGBTQ students calls the law discriminatory while another from a group of educators and the publisher Penguin Random House claims it violates their freedom of speech.

Enforcement provisions in the law that apply to book removals were set to take effect January 1.

“When education professionals return to work next week, they can do what they do best: take great care of all their students without fear of reprisal,” said Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association which is a plaintiff in the second lawsuit. “This ruling means they can continue successfully guiding all students without fear of punishment or losing their jobs.”

Under SF 496, school library books must comply with the state’s new definition of “age appropriate,” which means they cannot show or describe sexual acts, a term defined in criminal code.

Judge Stephen Locher said in his ruling released late Friday afternoon that the court was unable to find another school library book restriction “even remotely similar to Senate File 496.” Where lawmakers should use a scalpel, he said, SF 496 is a “bulldozer” that has pulled books out of schools that are widely regarded as important works.

“The underlying message is that there is no redeeming value to any such book even if it is a work of history, self-help guide, award-winning novel, or other piece of serious literature,” Locher wrote. “In effect, the Legislature has imposed a puritanical ‘pall of orthodoxy’ over school libraries.”

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Locher said the law’s section on gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-6 was written so broadly that recognizing any relationship, whether gay or straight, would likely violate the law even if that is not what lawmakers intended.

“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,” Locher said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said she is “extremely disappointed” in the ruling.

“Instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation has no place in kindergarten through sixth grade classrooms. And 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,” Reynolds said in a statement. “The fact that we’re even arguing these issues is ridiculous.”

A third part of the law challenged in court by the LGBTQ students and Iowa Safe Schools was allowed to stand. It requires schools to notify parents when students ask to use a different name or pronouns. Locher said the students did not have standing to challenge that part of the law.

An attorney for the students said the ruling still provides some protection for LGBTQ students.

“This decision sends a strong message to the state that efforts to ban books based on LGBTQ+ content, or target speech that sends a message of inclusion to Iowa LGBTQ+ students cannot stand,” said Lambda Legal attorney Nathan Maxwell.

The two sections of the law covered by the injunction cannot be enforced as the lawsuits continue to work their way through the courts.

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