Thursday, June 20, 2024

A federal judge in Iowa temporarily blocked on Friday the enforcement of a law backed by Republicans that banned books describing sex acts from public school libraries.

In granting the preliminary injunction, Judge Stephen Locher said that the law “makes no attempt to target such books in any reasonable way.”

“Instead, it requires the wholesale removal of every book containing a description or visual depiction of a ‘sex act,’ regardless of context,” the judge wrote. “The underlying message is that there is no redeeming value to any such book even if it is a work of history, self-help guide, award-winning novel or other piece of serious literature. In effect, the Legislature has imposed a puritanical ‘pall of orthodoxy’ over school libraries.”

The publisher Penguin Random House and the best-selling authors John Green and Jodi Picoult were among the plaintiffs who challenged the measure on free-speech grounds.

Judge Locher, who was appointed by President Biden to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, also blocked a portion of the law that imposed limits on instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity before seventh grade. The judge let stand a rule requiring schools to notify parents when a student asks to be called by a new pronoun.

The fight over the Iowa law is part of a broader national debate over how sexuality should be discussed in schools. Like conservatives elsewhere, Iowa Republicans brushed off concerns about free expression and said the restrictions safeguarded students from harmful materials.

Gov. Kim Reynolds said in a statement on Friday that she was “extremely disappointed” in the ruling and that “there should be no question that books containing sexually explicit content — as clearly defined in Iowa law — do not belong in a school library for children.”

“The real debate should be about why society is so intent on over-sexualizing our young children,” Ms. Reynolds added. “It’s wrong, and I will continue to do my part to protect their innocence.”

Since the Republican governor signed the bill into law in May, Iowa school districts have had to assess what selections in their libraries might violate the new rule, which allows for passing references to sex but bans anything that describes or depicts a sexual act.

Republicans nationally have emphasized their objections to a handful of titles, including some about L.G.B.T.Q. people, that contain graphic descriptions of sex. But many other books, including highly regarded ones that are not primarily about sex, were swept up in the Iowa crackdown.

The school system in the city of Nevada, Iowa, removed dozens of well-known titles from its shelves, including “1984” by George Orwell, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, “Looking for Alaska” by Mr. Green and “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley.

“You have people yanking books off because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs,” said Frederick Sperling, a lawyer for the publisher and authors, in oral arguments last week at the federal courthouse in Des Moines.

In court, Daniel Johnston, a lawyer in the state attorney general’s office, said it seemed some school districts had removed books not actually banned by the law. But he declined to wade into the compliance of specific titles.

When Judge Locher quizzed him about whether some award-winning literature or nonfiction books that described sexual violence would be banned under the law, Mr. Johnston responded that it would depend on whether there was a description of a sex act. As another example, the judge asked about hypothetical history books describing allegations of sexual misconduct against a president or presidential candidate. It would depend on how specific that description was, Mr. Johnston said.

Judge Locher said in court that the legislation was “one of the most bizarre laws I’ve ever read.” But he pressed plaintiffs’ lawyers about when the government might have an interest in regulating school books, and about why they thought the judiciary should override the wishes of lawmakers.

While the lawsuit filed by the publisher and authors focused on the part of the law restricting books, another case filed on behalf of L.G.B.T.Q. students, their parents and advocates asked the judge to block enforcement of the entire measure.

The passage of the law, known as Senate File 496, further demonstrated the rightward shift of Iowa politics. Iowa was once a swing state known for relatively moderate politics: Barack Obama carried the state twice. But Republicans have dominated at the ballot box over the last decade and now hold large legislative majorities.

In 2023 alone, Ms. Reynolds signed laws to restrict abortion, ban transition medical care for children and limit the powers of the state auditor, who is the only elected Democrat still holding a statewide office.

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