Penguin Random House and the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), along with four bestselling authors and five plaintiffs from the state of Iowa, have followed Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Iowa in filing a federal lawsuit against Iowa to block the book ban provisions of SF 496, the state's sweeping new law that critics say seeks to silence LGBTQ+ students and bans books with sexual or LGBTQ+ content.
Authors Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Malinda Lo, and Jodi Picoult—whose books Speak and Shout, Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, Last Night at the Telegraph Club and A Scatter of Light, and 19 Minutes, respectively, have been banned or removed in Iowa—are among the named plaintiffs, which also include a high school student, two middle school teachers, and a K-12 librarian from the state.
The suit, filed on November 30 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, takes aim solely at "the portions of Senate File 496 that require the removal of books from school libraries and classroom collections in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments," as per the complaint.
"Rather than defer to trained professionals, such as teachers or librarians, to determine which books are appropriate for school libraries and classroom collections, Senate File 496 automatically prohibits two categories of books in school libraries and classroom collections," the complaint states: books "that contain a description or visual depiction of a 'sex act' " and books that " 'relate' to 'gender identity' or 'sexual orientation.' "
The first restriction, the complaint continues, violates the free speech and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution by "so broadly regulating the display and availability of books that are constitutionally protected," while the latter "defines gender identity and sexual orientation so broadly that the prohibition could apply to all gender identities and any depiction of a romantic relationship." Both restrictions, the complaint states, restrict "access to access to constitutionally protected books" and are "unconstitutionally vague."
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.
"The First Amendment guarantees the right to read and to be read, to exchange ideas and viewpoints without unreasonable government interference," the plaintiffs said in a joint statement. "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 further contends that Iowa’s stated rationale for SF 496—protecting children from pornography—is a pretext and contrary to the definition of obscenity as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller vs. California (1973)."
Nihar Malaviya, PRH CEO, said in a statement that his company's "mission of connecting authors and their stories to readers around the world contributes to the free flow of ideas and perspectives that is a hallmark of American democracy—and we will always stand by it." He added: "We know that not every book we publish will be for every reader, but we must protect the right for all Americans, including students, parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians, to have equitable access to books and to continue to decide what they read."
Asked at a press conference whether PRH was concerned that book banning efforts across the country, including Iowa, would hurt the publisher's business following years of increasing its focus on publishing books by authors from diverse backgrounds—many of which are among those challenged by recent legislation—Dan Novack, v-p and associate general counsel at PRH, said that "there's no aspect of the business that has not been affected." He further noted that "there's a lot of chaos going on around the country, and we're seeing it at every level." Still, he clarified, "We're not seeking damages in this case. We're not asking the court to recoup lost sales or pay us back for the books that we missed out on...It is very much an issue of principle."
Novack noted that PRH is "very proud to publish all range of voices," books of "every stripe, politically, religiously, and everything in between," and that the publisher is "working very hard to open up the lens" of publishing to "people that are not only writing books, but are portrayed in them. We are insisting just as much on the rights of the Moms for Liberty to express their views as ours." He added: "And unless we want to throw in the towel and say, 'well, gee, we gave it a good shot, but the state governments decided they didn't want that,' I think, we have to fight. We have to be here. No one wants to be here, but we have to."
The suit is the latest in a string of lawsuits seeking to turn back book banning efforts in 2023, and the second legal action for PRH over book banning. The publisher is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by PEN America against the Escambia County School District and School Board in Florida over what the plaintiffs argue is an unconstitutional removal of books from school libraries.