Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Iowa, together with a number of named plaintiffs, have filed a federal lawsuit to block key provisions of SF 496, Iowa’s sweeping new law that critics say seeks to silence LGBTQ+ students and bans books with sexual or LGBTQ+ content.

Signed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds in May, SF 496 took effect this fall. Specifically, the law bans books with depictions of sex, written or visual, from school libraries, and prohibits instruction and materials involving “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” for students through sixth grade. In response, various Iowa school districts have already reportedly pulled hundreds of titles from their shelves, including books that contain LGBTQ+ characters, historical figures, or themes.

Furthermore, the law requires school officials, including teachers and counselors, to report to parents if their child requests to use a different name or pronouns. Under the law, staff who violate this provision will face disciplinary action, including job loss license revocation, as of January 1, 2024, regardless of whether this kind of “forced outing," as critics have called it, would expose a student to potential family rejection and abuse.

The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of Iowa Safe Schools, a nonprofit organization supporting LGBTQ and allied youth, seven Iowa families, and eight students ranging from the 4th to 12th grades. It seeks to have the law declared unconstitutional and permanently blocked. The plaintiffs are also seeking a preliminary injunction blocking the law’s implementation while the litigation proceeds.

Schools should be safe havens that protect all students—including LGBTQ+ students...

“SF 496 is a clear violation of public school students' First Amendment right to speak, read, and learn freely. The First Amendment does not allow our state or our schools to remove books or issue blanket bans on discussion and materials simply because a group of politicians or parents find them offensive,” said ACLU of Iowa staff attorney Thomas Story in a statement, adding that the law “has thrown the school year into chaos” as schools struggle to comply with the law.

“Schools should be safe havens that protect all students—including LGBTQ+ students—so they can learn and thrive in an affirming environment,” added Lambda Legal senior attorney Nathan Maxwell. “This law erases and silences LGBTQ+ students and their families from school classrooms, books, and history. It sends the message that LGBTQ+ kids are too shameful to be acknowledged and endangers not only their mental health, but also their physical safety and well-being. This law puts students at risk of bullying, violence, and even suicide. This unconstitutional law must be struck down.”

The suit is the latest in a string of lawsuits seeking to turn back book banning efforts in 2023, and the third legal action for ACLU in over book banning. On November 17, ACLU Alaska joined with a group of eight local plaintiffs to sue the Matanuska-Susitna Borough (Mat-Su) school district north of Anchorage, seeking the return of 56 books said to be improperly banned from school shelves. The ACLU is also suing in Missouri, over Senate Bill 775, a school library obscenity law that opponents say forces librarians to censor their collections under the "threat of arbitrary enforcement of imprisonment or fines."