ABFE and Allies File Amicus Brief Opposing Iowa Book Bans

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Along with a coalition of allied organizations, American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), the free expression initiative of the American Booksellers Association (ABA), has filed an amicus brief in in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in support of two lawsuits: PRH et al. v. Robbins and GLBT Youth in IA Schools et al. v. Reynolds. Both lawsuits challenge parts of Iowa’s “Don’t Say Gay” and book banning law, which was preliminarily enjoined by the District Court of the Southern District of Iowa. ABFE is joined on this brief by a wide array of book-related organizations and companies, including the Association of American Publishers (AAP), Authors Guild, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

The law allows books with any depiction or description of sexual conduct to be removed from libraries and schools if they are deemed “age inappropriate.” The passage of the law led to the removal of hundreds of books from Iowa school libraries, including recognized classics such as Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and important reference books on sexual health and education like Endometriosis by Stephanie Watson and Urinary Tract Infection by Krista West. The law also limits instruction related to sexual orientation and gender identity and forces schools to out gender non-conforming youth to their parents.


Allison K Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, underscored ABA’s support for both lawsuits challenging the law: “The ABA applauds PRH, the LGBTQ+ Iowa youth plaintiffs and their families, and all of the organizations, authors, and publishers who have come together against this law and in support of the First Amendment and the rights of all Iowans. This is a vague, discriminatory, unconstitutional law that contradicts Iowa's state motto: ‘Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain’.”


Our coalition’s amicus brief explains how the law impacts publishers, authors, and booksellers. Our brief argues:

  • The law has a far-reaching impact that goes beyond schools and libraries because book bans can prevent authors from creating works, publishers buying works, and booksellers from selling works that could be banned from schools and libraries. 
  • The law restricts constitutionally protected speech. A library is not exempt from the First Amendment since it serves the people in the community and cannot be limited only to what officials find acceptable or orthodox. Works restricted by the law include those with literary, scientific, and artistic value, and thus are not obscene. Finally, the law does not require “pervasive vulgarity,” a standard established in other precedents, for the removal of a book depicting a sex act. 
  • The law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad because of inadequate definition of what constitutes a “description or visual depiction of a sex act.” As the court has already noted, reasonable school districts could come to conflicting conclusions about what meets this standard.


On behalf of Iowa Safe Schools and seven Iowa students and their families affected by the law, ACLU of Iowa, Lambda Legal, and Jenner & Block LLP filed a lawsuit against the law in November 2023 (GLBT Youth et al. v. Reynolds). It challenges the law’s prohibition on mention of LGBTQ+ identities, forced outing of gender-nonconforming students, and removal of books containing depictions of a sex act.


A few days later, Penguin Random House filed their suit (PRH et al. v. Robbins), joined as co-plaintiffs by: the Iowa State Education Association; authors including Jodi Picoult, Malinda Lo, Laurie Halse Anderson, and John Green; an Iowa high school student; Iowa educators; and an Iowa librarian. The suit makes several First Amendment complaints. First, it contends that the law is overbroad, defining as “pornography” any work depicting a sex act. Second, that the law is an impermissible content-based restriction and unconstitutionally vague. And finally, that it discriminates in practice against LGBTQ+ content, also violating the Fourteenth Amendment. 

On December 29, Judge Stephen Locher of the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa issued a preliminary injunction against critical parts of the law, including book restrictions and content-based restrictions on what can be taught in K–6 Iowa classrooms. Judge Locher found that parts of the law would likely be found unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction blocking their enforcement. The State has appealed to the Eighth Circuit. 

This amicus brief joins our coalitions’ lawsuits in Texas and Arkansas in ABFE’s contribution to the legal fight against book ban laws. A majority of judges on the Fifth Circuit declined to rehear the appeal of our case in Texas, which means it will either be appealed to a higher court or returned to the District Court that enjoined it. In the Arkansas case, we look forward to oral arguments in the Western District of Arkansas. \


ABFE’s coalition’s amicus brief in the Iowa case can be found in full here