Publishing giant Penguin Random House and renowned authors Jodi Picoult and John Green joined Iowa educators in a lawsuit challenging SF496, the state law restricting curriculum related to gender and sexuality that went into effect this fall.
The Iowa State Education Association, one of the parties in the suit, said the law "takes away the long-standing freedom of teachers and librarians" under the First and 14th Amendments. Educators are professionals "trained in what is age-relevant and essential to include in our classrooms and on our shelves," said ISEA President Mike Beranek.
The lawsuit is the second filed against the expansive Iowa law this week and challenges only portions of it that require removal of books from school libraries and classroom collections — veering in its approach from an earlier lawsuit filed Tuesday that challenged the entire statute. It's also the second lawsuit joined by Penguin Random House challenging state restrictions on curriculum.
The lawsuit reflects many others nationwide that have been filed under the First and 14th Amendments on the grounds that states' curriculum restrictions are too vague and infringe on the freedom of speech for students, authors, teachers and others.
In the Thursday lawsuit, plaintiffs said the "sweeping prohibition defines gender identity and sexual orientation so broadly that the prohibition could apply to all gender identities and any depiction of a romantic relationship."
As a result, students in some Iowa schools are restricted from accessing classic texts that include multiple works from Toni Morrison, “Ulysses” by James Joyce and “The Handmaid's Tale” by Margaret Atwood, said the Iowa State Education Association, which represents educators in more than 300 school districts across the state, in a press release.
“We know parental choice and involvement are critical to a child’s success in school," said Beranek. "We also know that there are systems in school districts across the state that specifically outline how a parent or guardian can object to their student participating or reading a book they feel is not appropriate for their child. We take issue with a law that also censors materials for everyone else’s child."
Previously, censorship experts from PEN America, an organization that advocates for free speech rights, have noted that traditional opt-out policies and district policies have allowed for parents and students to challenge objectionable materials in limited scenarios or texts.
However, these newer laws are broader in their scope and limit access to certain texts related to gender, sexuality or race for entire grades.
Parts of Iowa's law, for example, apply specifically to K-6 and K-12.
In Florida, one of the states leading curriculum restrictions, a "Don't Say Gay" law was expanded earlier this year from its original K-3 scope to include pre-K to 8th grade. Other conservative states also considered following suit.
Lawsuits challenging curriculum restrictions have cropped up in many of the same states, including but not limited to New Hampshire and Florida, where Penguin Random House joined a lawsuit over book bans in Escambia County School District.
As such, laws restricting K-12 curriculum are being challenged and working their way through the courts on a state-by-state basis rather than through sweeping federal legal action. In the meantime, experts have suggested that teachers, administrators and other educators will have difficult decisions on the horizon as laws continue to go into effect.
In June, however, the U.S. Department of Education announced a new coordinator to take on book bans in classrooms and libraries across the country.
The coordinator is expected to develop new training for schools nationwide regarding how book bans targeting specific communities and driving "hostile school environments" may violate federal civil rights laws.