In May, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law Senate File 496, a landmark parental rights bill that, among other things, requires schools to remove books that depict a “sex act.” The expansive reach of this law is leading school districts to toss out thought-provoking books and classics of Western literature. The Bible, if it could be admitted to a public school library, might face a similar fate over the Song of Solomon.
The Iowa City Community School District removed 68 books to comply with the law, including James Joyce’s Ulysses and Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Among the hundreds of other books removed by other Iowa school districts are George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump. These books have enriched the reading lives of high school students for decades.
Let us propose one test for any content restriction law: if your bill bans 1984, you might be a little too much like the book.
In Arkansas, plaintiffs before a federal court are contesting two provisions in the state’s Act 372. One provision creates a misdemeanor criminal liability for librarians and booksellers, and even parents, who “[furnish] a harmful item to a minor.” The second creates a process by which any citizen can challenge the appropriateness of any book and have it removed from a school or other public library, applying local community standards, with final decision-making power in the hands of local county quorum courts or city councils.
As the plaintiffs assert, the first provision would result in either the widespread removal of books or an outright ban on young people under 18 from entering libraries or bookstores. The second one, they argue, would allow vocal minorities to tell entire communities what they can and cannot read. The judge in this case found the plaintiffs likely to succeed in both claims on the merits based on the overbreadth of these provisions.
If prohibitions, such as the elimination of “sex” from literature is too broad, what kinds of content should be legitimately challenged by parents? As if to answer this question, the Montgomery County Board of Education in Maryland maintains as part of its elementary school curriculum requirements controversial readings of sexually charged subjects, such as gender transition, and fetish topics like leather and drag queens.
A balance is needed. Our laws have always recognized the need to delineate age-appropriate materials. But laws that are overly broad and vague risk trampling on legitimate First Amendment interests, degrading the educational experience of students, and will only result in costly legal battles.
When legislators stick to crafting laws that support appropriate content curation for school libraries and avoid doomed efforts at censorship, everyone is better off. Legislators would save themselves the embarrassment of having their laws invalidated by courts when they pass messaging bills that are clearly unconstitutional. Parents can be assured their children will be protected from inappropriate content. And students can enjoy the best works from the best writers.