Federal appeals court weighs challenge to Iowa ban on books with sexual content from schools

MINNEAPOLIS — Attorneys for LGBTQ+ youth, teachers and major publishers asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to affirm a lower court order that blocked key parts of an Iowa law banning books depicting sex acts from school libraries and classrooms.

The law, which the Republican-led Legislature and GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds approved in 2023, also forbids teachers from raising gender identity and sexual orientation issues with younger students. It resulted in the removal of hundreds of books from Iowa schools before U.S. District Judge Stephen Locher blocked its enforcement in December, calling it “incredibly broad.”

“Iowa students are entitled to express and receive diverse viewpoints at school. But the State — taking aim at already vulnerable LGBTQ+ students — seeks to silence them, erase from schools any recognition that LGBTQ+ people exist, and bully students, librarians, and teachers into quiet acquiescence,” attorneys for the students wrote in a brief ahead of Tuesday’s oral arguments before a three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In addition to schools removing books with LGBTQ+ themes from libraries, they also shut down extracurricular clubs dealing with those issues and removed pride flags from classrooms, the students’ attorneys wrote. Students had to censor themselves about their gender identities and sexual orientations, according to the attorneys.

Attorneys for the state of Iowa argued that the law is constitutional and that the state has a right to enforce it.

“The government’s interest in ensuring an education suitable to students’ age and in preventing minor students’ exposure to inappropriate material is a legitimate, compelling, even substantial one. And removing from school library shelves books that describe or depict ‘sex acts’ is reasonably related to that legitimate interest.” they wrote in their brief.

Iowa enacted its law amid a wave of similar legislation across the country. The proposals have typically come from Republican lawmakers, who say the laws are designed to affirm parents’ rights and protect children. The laws often seek to prohibit discussion of gender and sexual orientation issues, ban treatments such as puberty blockers for transgender children, and restrict the use of restrooms in schools. Many have prompted court challenges.

The organization Iowa Safe Schools and seven students, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Lambda Legal, sued to challenge the law in November. A separate challenge was filed later the same week by the Iowa State Education Association teachers union, publisher Penguin Random House and four authors. The cases were combined for Tuesday’s hearing before the federal appeals court.

Iowa Solicitor General Eric Wessan argued that the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the law because it can be enforced only against school districts and their employees, not students. He said in his brief that the law, when it comes to curating books in public school libraries, regulates government speech, not private speech, and therefore is not subject to First Amendment protection.


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