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Penguin Random House, Educators File Lawsuit Challenging Iowa Book Ban

— December 1, 2023

Educators and publishers claim that a recently-enacted Iowa law directing schools to remove certain books from library shelves discriminates against LGBTQ+ authors and perspectives.

Penguin Random House, one of the largest publishers in the United States, has filed a federal lawsuit against an Iowa state law prohibiting certain books from being circulated in public schools.

According to CNN, the lawsuit lists additional plaintiffs including an individual student, several teachers, and the Iowa State Education Association. Four bestselling authors are also listed as parties to the complaint.

Collectively, Penguin Random House and its co-plaintiffs allege that S.F. 496, signed into law by Gov. Kim Reynolds in May, unfairly and illegally deprives students of literature that “portrays and describes critical aspects of the human experience.”

By limiting publications on sexual orientation and gender identity, for instance, the law “discriminates against LGBTQ+ viewpoints and authors.”

Nevertheless, Reynolds—a Republican—says that nothing in S.F. 496 should be construed as controversial.

“Protecting children from pornography and sexually explicit content shouldn’t be controversial. The real controversary [sic] is that it exists in elementary schools,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Books with graphic descriptions of sex acts have absolutely no place in our schools.”

CNN notes that S.F. 496 requires that K-12 school libraries only carry books that have been termed “age-appropriate,” excluding those that contain “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.”

Employees who refuse to comply with the law’s provisions could face enhanced disciplinary action, including termination and the loss of professional licenses.

A gavel. Image via Wikimedia Commons via Flickr/user: Brian Turner. (CCA-BY-2.0).

The Iowa State Educators Association, or ISEA, has since claimed that S.F> 496’s overly-broad provisions have forced districts to order the removal of a wide range of award-winning novels, including Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margeret Atwood.

Mike Beranek, the association’s president, said that ISEA stands behind the expertise of educational professionals and librarians, who—unlike legislators—are actually trained to determine what content is appropriate for children of different ages.

“We stand firmly on the side of the experts in our schools and the parents supporting their children” Beranek said. “We take issue with a law that also censors materials for everyone else’s child.”

Several of the authors represented in the lawsuit say they felt some responsibility to stand up for students who may need support not available outside of school libraries.

Malinda Lo, for instance, wrote “Last Night at the Telegraph Club,” an award-winning novel that tells the fictionalized story of a Chinese-American girl who discovers her attraction to other women in the 1950s McCarthy era. Lo’s books has since been banned from dozens of districts and communities across the United States.

“In the two years since it won the [2021] National Book Award [in Young People’s Literature], it has been banned, challenged, or restricted in over 40 school districts and communities across the country, including six in Iowa alone,” Lo said in a statement.

Lo said that she joined the lawsuit because she feels “a responsibility to [her] queer and Asian-American readers—a responsibility to stand up for them and their rights to read about people like them.”

The Iowa Department of Education has, in the meantime, reiterated its commitment to restricting children’s access to books it finds unfavorable.

“Senate File 496 keeps explicit books and materials with graphic descriptions of sex acts out of the hands of children in school,” the agency said in a statement. “The Iowa Department of Education will continue to implement this law as statutorily required.”


Bestselling authors join Penguin Random House lawsuit over Iowa’s new book ban law

ISEA, Penguin Random House and authors file lawsuit over banned books in Iowa schools

Teachers’ union joins lawsuit with best-selling authors, largest U.S. publisher challenging Iowa book law

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