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Lawsuit seeks to block law banning LGBTQ materials, explicit books in Iowa schools

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Lawsuit seeks to block law banning LGBTQ materials, explicit books in Iowa schools

Nov 28, 2023 | 4:42 pm ET
By Robin Opsahl
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Lawsuit seeks to block law banning LGBTQ materials, explicit books in Iowa schools
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Joe, Berry, and Brigit Stevens, from left, are one of the families involved in the lawsuit challenging state restrictions on school books in federal court. (Photo courtesy of Lambda Legal)

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa and Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit in federal court Tuesday seeking to block enforcement of parts of an Iowa law that restricts schools from teaching topics involving gender and sexuality and prohibits books involving sex acts.

The legal organizations are acting on behalf of seven Iowa students and families, as well as Iowa Safe Schools, a nonprofit group advocating for LGBTQ students. The lawsuit claims that Senate File 496 violates Iowa students’ First and 14th Amendment rights to equal protection, free speech, free association and due process, as well as leading to discrimination and higher safety risks for LGBTQ students.

Thomas Story, an ACLU of Iowa attorney, said at a news conference Tuesday that the law is a “clear violation” of students’ rights to speak, read and learn freely.

“The First Amendment does not allow our state or our schools to remove books or issue blanket bans on discussion and material simply because a group of politicians or parents find them offensive,” Story said.

The measure, signed into law in May, includes provisions requiring schools to remove books with graphic depictions and images of sex acts as well as prohibiting teachers from including materials and instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation for K-6 students. The Iowa Department of Education has the authority to conduct investigations into complaints about school districts and staff violating the law, which will be enforced beginning Jan. 1, 2024.

Officials with the legal organizations said they are seeking a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of the law during the course of the suit.

Story said Iowa schools are already facing problems trying to comply with the new rules. The state Department of Education did not release detailed guidance for schools on implementing the new restrictions despite requests from school districts and educators to clarify the rules, instead saying they will approach investigations into violations on a “case-by-case” basis.

This leaves Iowa schools with the “impossible task” of ensuring their libraries and classroom material are in compliance, he said.

“Our public school teachers, teacher librarians and administrators are some of the most highly educated and experienced professionals in our state,” Story said. “Yet instead of trusting them to prepare our children for the real Iowa with its diversity of people and opinions, this law demands that they overly restrict the thoughts our children can receive and share.”

The law also puts LGBTQ students at higher risk, advocates said. Another provision in the law requires schools inform parents if a student asks to use different pronouns or name than what they were given at birth. Becky Tayler, executive director for Iowa Safe Schools, said the law not only prevents students from engaging with material that reflects their own lives, but puts students at risk by outing them to family members without their permission.

“When a student feels more safe confiding in a teacher or counselor about their gender identity or sexual orientation than a parent, there’s a reason for that,” Tayler said. “Nearly one-third of LGBTQ youth report facing homelessness or housing instability due to mistreatment related to their LGBTQ identity.”

The law also puts students at higher risk for discrimination and harm in schools, students and families participating in the lawsuit said. Percy Batista-Pedro, a high school junior from Waterloo, said he has experienced harassment and threats of violence at school because of his transgender identity. The new law and the climate of anti-LGBTQ sentiment it has fostered makes him fear for his and other transgender students’ “happiness and safety more than ever,” he said.

“I’m scared of being harassed if I wear pride apparel, or if I talk about my identity in class,” Batista-Pedro said. “This fear which is shared by many of my transgender friends, is why I have chosen to be a plaintiff in this case.”

Republican lawmakers argued the law would not lead to increased discrimination or bullying of LGBTQ students, as there are other measures in place to address harassment in schools. Berry Stevens, an eighth grader from West Des Moines and their mother, the Rev. Brigit Stevens, spoke about Berry’s experience being physically and verbally harassed at school for wearing a shirt with a rainbow and a pride flag during a school culture day.

“I wish my school would do something to actually prevent bullying before it happens, not just tell kids it’s wrong after the fact,” Berry Stevens said. “But because of this law, I feel like the school is too worried about getting in trouble with the state if they try to speak out.”

Gov. Kim Reynolds, the Iowa Department of Education and director McKenzie Snow, the Iowa Board of Education as well as the Iowa City, Sioux City, Urbandale, Waterloo and West Des Moines school districts are defendants in the case. Reynolds responded to the lawsuit in a news release Tuesday, saying that “protecting children from pornography and sexually explicit content shouldn’t be controversial.”

“The real controversary is that it exists in elementary schools,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Books with graphic depictions of sex acts have absolutely no place in our schools. If these books were movies, they’d be rated R. The media cannot even air or print excerpts from these books because the content is offensive and inappropriate, yet they promote the narrative that they’re good for kids.”