Federal appeals court considers challenge to Iowa’s ban on books with sexual content in schools

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Lawyers for LGBTQ+ youth, teachers and major publishers asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to uphold a lower court order that blocked key elements of a Iowa law prohibiting books depicting sexual acts from school libraries and classrooms.

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

“Iowa students have the right to express and receive diverse viewpoints in school. But the state – by targeting already vulnerable LGBTQ+ students – seeks to silence them, erase any recognition of the existence of LGBTQ+ people from schools, and intimidate students, librarians and teachers into acquiescence. silent,” the students’ attorneys wrote in a brief before Jan. 1. Oral arguments Tuesday 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 have also closed after-school clubs addressing these issues and removed pride flags from classrooms, the students’ lawyers wrote. Students were required to self-censor their gender identity and sexual orientations, lawyers said.

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

“The government’s interest in ensuring age-appropriate education and preventing minor students from being exposed to inappropriate material is a legitimate, compelling, and even substantial interest. And removing books from school libraries that describe or depict “sexual acts” is reasonably related to this legitimate interest. they wrote in their memoir.

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

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

Iowa Solicitor General Eric Wessan argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the law because it could only be applied to school districts and their employees, not students. He stated in his brief that the law, when it comes to keeping books in public school libraries, regulates government speech, not private speech, and is therefore not subject to the protection of the former amendment.

“Whatever the court decides, it will either extend the government speech doctrine to public school libraries for the first time, or it will find, for the first time, some sort of First Amendment right for library books schools. the 8th Circuit,” Wessan told the three judges. “Either way, new ground is going to be broken. »

Frederick Sperling, a lawyer for Penguin Random House, urged the appeals court to uphold the lower court’s ruling that the law is unconstitutional “on its face” in all the circumstances.

Judge James Loken noted that the 8th Circuit has historically disfavored “face challenges” and prefers narrower challenges to laws “as applied” in specific circumstances. He suggested that winning limited challenges would send adequate messages to school districts about what they can do.

“The question before this court is not whether some of the books that defendants may cite can be constitutionally removed from school libraries,” Sperling said. “They can, and they were under the law in effect before (the new law) was passed. The question before this court is whether this overly broad and vague law is constitutional. And that’s not the case.

Student advocates called the ban on teaching gender identity and sexual orientation for students in kindergarten through sixth grade “ Don’t say gay “, using a nickname that stuck in other states like Florida.

But Wessan argued that the provision only allows the law to be used against schools, not students, and that the only student plaintiff young enough to be affected — a fourth grader — was not disciplined nor threatened with discipline.

The appeals committee took the matter under advisement and did not say when it would rule.