In yet another legal victory for freedom to read advocates, a federal judge has blocked two key portions of SF 496, a recently passed Iowa state law that sought to ban books with sexual content from Iowa schools and to bar classroom discussion of gender identity and sexuality for students below the seventh grade.
In a 49-page opinion and order, judge Stephen Locher criticized the law as “incredibly broad” and acknowledged that it has already resulted in the removal of “of hundreds of books from school libraries, including, among others, nonfiction history books, classic works of fiction, Pulitzer Prize–winning contemporary novels, books that regularly appear on Advanced Placement exams, and even books designed to help students avoid being victimized by sexual assault.”
Specifically, Locher preliminarily enjoined two provisions challenged in two separate but parallel lawsuits. Regarding the law’s ban on books with any depictions of sex acts, Locher found that the law’s “sweeping restrictions” are “unlikely to satisfy the First Amendment under any standard of scrutiny.” In a rebuke, Locher said he was “unable to locate a single case upholding the constitutionality of a school library restriction even remotely similar to Senate File 496.”
Locher said that the law's “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,” adding that with the law state lawmakers had sought to impose “a puritanical ‘pall of orthodoxy’ over school libraries.”
Furthermore, Locher suggested that the law was a solution in search of a problem. “The State Defendants have presented no evidence that student access to books depicting sex acts was creating any significant problems in the school setting, much less to the degree that would give rise to a ‘substantial and reasonable governmental interest’ justifying across-the-board removal,” he wrote. “Instead, at most, the State Defendants presented evidence that some parents found the content of a small handful of books to be objectionable.”
As to the law’s restrictions on instruction relating to gender identity and sexual orientation, Locher sought to clarify two “severe” misunderstandings about what the law actually says. First, nothing in the law act restricts the ability of school officials to engage with issues of gender identity and sexual orientation with students in grade seven and above, he held, whether in the classroom or outside of it. “To the extent school districts, teachers, or students have been interpreting the law otherwise, they are simply wrong,” Locher wrote.
As for students in grade six and below, Locher noted that the plain text of the law actually doesn’t distinguish between “cisgender or transgender identity or gay or straight relationships.” While opponents of SF 496 have often described the effort as a “don’t say gay” or “don’t say trans” bill, based on the plain language of the statute, Locher said, it is actually a “don’t say anything” bill.
“The statute is therefore content-neutral but so wildly overbroad that every school district and elementary school teacher in the State has likely been violating it since the day the school year started,” Locher held. “This renders the statute void for vagueness under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because the State will have unfettered discretion to decide when to enforce it and against whom, thus making it all but impossible for a reasonable person to know what will and will not lead to punishment.”
Still, Locher was quick to acknowledge the intent of the law, acknowledging that both the plaintiffs and the state agree that the law was “designed to prohibit discussion of homosexuality and transgenderism.” The problem, Locher said, “is that the Court cannot interpret Senate File 496 as targeting transgender identities and homosexual relationships without substituting the Court’s own choice of words for the ones chosen by the Legislature. This the Court cannot do.”
In a setback for LGBTQ advocates, however, the court declined to block a controversial provision of the law that requires school officials to notify a child’s parents if the child asks for “the use of pronouns that do not match the school’s registration records or otherwise seeks an accommodation relating to gender identity,” citing a standing issue. As of January 1, 2024, school officials who violate this rule can be disciplined, even fired. “Only the GLBT Youth Student Plaintiffs challenge this portion of the law, but they are all already ‘out’ to their families and therefore not affected in a concrete way by this requirement,” Locher ruled.
SF 496 was signed by Iowa governor Kim Reynolds in May, and set to into full effect as of January 1, 2024.
In a statement, Reynolds said that she was "extremely disappointed” by 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. The fact that we’re even arguing these issues is ridiculous,” Reynolds said. “The real debate should be about why society is so intent on over-sexualizing our young children. It’s wrong, and I will continue to do my part to protect their innocence.”
On November 26, Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Iowa, together with a number of named plaintiffs in Iowa, filed the first suit to challenge the law, calling it “a clear violation of public school students’ First Amendment right to speak, read, and learn freely.“ Days later, Penguin Random House and the Iowa State Education Association, along with bestselling authors Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Malinda Lo, and Jodi Picoult, also sued.
The ruling in Iowa is the third major legal victory for freedom to read advocates since July, all seeking to block and eventually strike down a host of state laws passed in 2023 that seek to ban books under the guise of parental rights.
In a July 29 opinion and order, judge Timothy Brooks preliminarily enjoined key provisions of Act 372, Arkansas's newly passed “harmful to minors” law, which would have exposed Arkansas librarians to criminal liability for making allegedly inappropriate books accessible to minors. And on August 31, a federal judge in Austin, Tex., preliminarily enjoined HB 900, that state’s controversial book rating law. Those cases are currently being appealed.
In a statement, Penguin Random House associate general counsel, Dan Novack said the plaintiffs are "extremely gratified" by Locher’s opinion and order.
"Our position remains that all viewpoints and perspectives must be made equitably available to readers, and judge Locher has validated the importance of that with his ruling today," Novack said. "Penguin Random House will continue to stand up for the First Amendment, our authors, their stories and ideas, and the students and educators who have the right to access and discuss books without government interference.”