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Bestselling authors join Penguin Random House lawsuit over Iowa’s new book ban law

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Posted at 3:45 PM, Dec 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-12-01 15:45:37-05

(CNN) — Penguin Random House, one of the country’s largest publishers, filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging an Iowa state law that bans books in schools and limits what can be taught on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Four bestselling authors – including John Green and Jodi Picoult – who have had their books challenged or removed from Iowa classrooms, are among the list of plaintiffs, which also included Iowa teachers, a student and the Iowa State Education Association.

The complaint argues SF 496, which Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed in May, deprives students of literature that “portrays and describes critical aspects of the human experience” and “discriminates against LGBTQ+ viewpoints and authors.”

It also marks the second time in a week that the state has been sued to block provisions of the law from taking effect.

Earlier this week, Lambda Legal, the ACLU of Iowa, and the law firm Jenner & Block LLP also filed a lawsuit arguing that new law seeks to “silence LGBTQ+ students, erase any recognition of LGBTQ+ people from public schools, and bans books with sexual or LGBTQ+ content,” according to a news release.

Gov. Reynolds responded to that lawsuit saying SF 496 shouldn’t be seen as controversial.

“Protecting children from pornography and sexually explicit content shouldn’t be controversial. The real controversary (sic) is that it exists in elementary schools,” the governor said in a statement. “Books with graphic depictions of sex acts have absolutely no place in our schools.”

SF 496 requires K-12 school libraries to only carry books deemed “age-appropriate,” and requires libraries to exclude any book with “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act,” CNN previously reported.

Employees found to be in repeated violation of some of these provisions could face disciplinary action, including termination and loss of license.

The Penguin Random House lawsuit targets portions of the bill that call for books to be removed from school libraries and classrooms, arguing the law violates the First and 14th Amendments.

According to the Iowa State Educators Association (ISEA), without clear guidance from state lawmakers on which books violate the law, districts have proposed removing a range of award-winning novels, including Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

Mike Beranek, president of the association, said the organization stands behind the expertise of the education professionals and librarians who are trained to make determinations for what is age-appropriate content to include in schools.

“We stand firmly on the side of the experts in our schools and the parents supporting their children,” Beranek said in a news release. “We take issue with a law that also censors materials for everyone else’s child.”

Author Malinda Lo’s novel “Last Night at the Telegraph Club” won the 2021 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. The book, a coming of age story about a Chinese American girl who discovers her identity as a lesbian during the 1950s McCarthy era, was later banned in some school districts in Iowa.

Lo said she chose to become a plaintiff in the lawsuit because she wanted to stand up for immigrant and LGBTQ communities in America.

“In the two years since it won the National Book Award, it has been banned, challenged, or restricted in over 40 school districts and communities across the country, including six in Iowa alone,” Lo said in a statement about the lawsuit.

She added she wanted to join the lawsuit “because I feel a responsibility to my queer and Asian American readers — a responsibility to stand up for them and their rights to read about people like them.”