Des Moines, Iowa — Lambda Legal, the ACLU of Iowa, and the law firm Jenner & Block LLP filed a lawsuit today in federal court to block provisions of SF 496, the sweeping Iowa law that seeks to silence LGBTQ+ students, erase any recognition of LGBTQ+ people from public schools, and bans books with sexual or LGBTQ+ content.
The law also requires teachers, counselors, school psychologists, and other staff to report students to their parents or guardians if a student asks to be referred to by names or pronouns that align with their gender identity. This reporting is required regardless of whether it violates a student’s expectation of confidentiality, professional ethical obligations, or whether the school official knows that the student would be rendered unsafe, kicked out of their home, or subject to abuse as a result.
The lawsuit is being brought on behalf of Iowa Safe Schools, a non-profit organization supporting LGBTQ and allied youth, and seven Iowa students and their families affected by the law. The students range from 4th to 12th graders and span the state.
One of the clients in the case, Puck Carlson (they/them), a high school senior in Iowa City, said the law is having a devastating impact on LGBTQ+ students like them. “Reading has always been a fundamental part of how I learned to understand the world around me. Every student should have the right to do the same: to be able to learn about people, cultures, and perspectives and to be able to learn about all of the world around them—not just parts of it. Furthermore, every student should be able to see themselves in their libraries—so that they not only understand the world around them but that they also belong in it.”
SPECIFICS OF THE LAWSUIT
SF 496 is a law with wide-ranging implications for students' academic experience, safe school climate, and mental health. The lawsuit challenges multiple portions of the law that target LGBTQ+ youth and require school districts to ban books, including the following provisions:
- The law forbids "any program, curriculum, test, survey, questionnaire, promotion, or instruction relating to gender identity or sexual orientation" in grades K-6. This prohibition has frightened LGBTQ+ young people into concealing who they are for fear of violating the law or getting a teacher in trouble. This provision has caused school districts to take down safe space stickers, remove references to LGBTQ historical figures from library displays, and ban books with LGBTQ themes or characters from libraries and classrooms. This provision also has forced student groups for LGBTQ+ students and their allies to stop meeting entirely.
- The law requires public schools K-12 to remove all books containing "descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act" with the explicit exception of the Bible. This portion of the law has caused school districts to remove hundreds of titles from school libraries. School districts have interpreted this provision as requiring the removal of classics from authors such as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Walker, and many others.
- The law requires school counselors and other school employees to report to parents or guardians any student’s request for a gender-affirming accommodation, including any request to be addressed by particular pronouns. This forced outing provision requires disclosure of a student’s gender identity to the student’s parents or guardians regardless of whether a school official knows that the report will expose the student to potential family rejection, being kicked out, or physical abuse.
The law went into effect this fall. Penalties for violating portions of the law start January 1, 2024, and administrators, teachers, librarians, and other school staff will be subject to disciplinary action, which could include being fired or losing a license.
In response, various Iowa school districts have pulled hundreds of titles from their shelves. Many of the banned books contain content of particular relevance to LGBTQ+ students, including LGBTQ+ characters, historical figures, or themes. As a result of the ban, LGBTQ+ students are denied the comfort of narratives that include LGBTQ+ characters and the solace that they are not alone.
On Nov. 15, the Iowa Board of Education issued proposed rules implementing the law, but those rules do not clarify the law and do not address its unconstitutionality.
The plaintiffs ask the court to 1) temporarily block the implementation of SF 496 while the litigation proceeds because of ongoing irreparable harm to LGBTQ+ students. The lawsuit also asks 2) that SF 496 then be declared unconstitutional and permanently blocked.
As statewide media has reported, school administrators are struggling to comply with the law. Urbandale, for example, came up with an initial list of 374 books to remove from shelves and has since reduced that to 64. Norwalk also has issued a list of books to be removed from its schools. Mason City also banned 20 books from its schools using AI to help determine which ones should be banned.
Nathan Maxwell, Lambda Legal senior attorney (he/his)
"Schools should be safe havens that protect all students—including LGBTQ+ students—so they can learn and thrive in an affirming environment. This law erases and silences LGBTQ+ students and their families from school classrooms, books, and history. It sends the message that LGBTQ+ kids are too shameful to be acknowledged and endangers not only their mental health, but also their physical safety and well-being. This law puts students at risk of bullying, violence, and even suicide. This unconstitutional law must be struck down.”
Thomas Story, ACLU of Iowa staff attorney (he/his)
"SF 496 is a clear violation of public school students' First Amendment right to speak, read, and learn freely. The First Amendment does not allow our state or our schools to remove books or issue blanket bans on discussion and materials simply because a group of politicians or parents find them offensive.
"This law is deeply confusing and schools have been at a loss on how to comply, even after consulting with their attorneys. This law has thrown the school year into chaos as schools struggled to figure out how to comply with this confusing law. Iowa schools across the state have been given an impossible task and it is no surprise that no two districts seem to be approaching compliance in the same way. Our public school teachers, teacher-librarians, and administrators are some of the most highly educated and experienced professionals in our state. Yet instead of trusting them to prepare our children for the real Iowa, with its diversity of people and opinions, this law demands they overly restrict the thoughts our students can receive and share."
Puck Carlson, high school senior, Iowa City (they/them)
“Like it or not, sex and sexuality are parts of the teenage experience. Refusing to provide adolescents with information about it means they’ll seek out their own information— from the Internet, or from others, in ways that are significantly less safe than books reviewed by teachers or librarians.
"Removing books that discuss queer topics or people from our schools tells our queer students that they do not belong there, that their existence is shameful. I am not shameful. I have an LGBTQ little sister, who I love more than anything in this world, and she is not shameful. She deserves to be herself and to know that she belongs. When I was in seventh grade, I read "Melissa" by Alex Gino. It was the first time I had read about a trans kid. While that might not seem like a lot, being able to find and identify yourself with things is an important part of being a child. School is one of the main places that children read, and being able to access literature in which you can see yourself can be instrumental to a student's discovery of themselves—it certainly was to me. Removing these books not only makes queer people less visible, but it also stops students from discovering and being true to themselves
"But this law is not just about what the children are learning. It’s about safety. When my 9-year-old sister sees a rainbow in a classroom, it shows her that she is safe there. It says that that room contains people who will not harass or harm her for something she cannot change.
"SF 496 hasn’t been easy for my little sister. I see how she’s more and more worried about going to school, how she conceals herself instead of taking pride in who she is. No longer can she tell if someone is safe, because they aren’t allowed to advertise that—and it means she has to treat everyone as unsafe, by default. It is heartbreaking to watch her be made to feel alone, silenced, and less than at school, and to know that the state we have lived in for our entire lives supports that.”
Percy Batista-Pedro, high school junior, Waterloo (he/them)
"I am a junior and I also attend orchestra, participate in theater, and lead my school's Gay-Straight Alliance. I have experienced harassment in school because of my transgender identity, but SF496 and its provisions to shut down open, healthy discussion of LGBTQ issues, and its silencing of students like me make me fear for my happiness and safety more than ever.
"I am scared of being harassed if I wear Pride apparel, or if I talk about my identity in class. This fear, which is shared by my transgender friends, is why I have chosen to be a plaintiff in this case. During my freshman year while I was performing in a play, a student in the crowd threatened to kill me. I believe the student knew me because of a protest I had staged earlier that year at my high school. Now, after SF 496 and the climate it has created to shame and invite violence against transgender people, I would be terrified of organizing another protest.
"Transgender youth should not have to live in fear at their schools. We should not have to take unnecessary steps to gain the respect of being called by the correct name and pronouns that no cisgender kid ever has to ask for. It is blatant discrimination and should not be permitted to continue."
Belinda Scarrott, Percy's mom, Waterloo (pronouns she/they)
"I have joined with other parents in the State of Iowa to act against this unnecessarily cruel law. My 16-year-old child is transgender and queer. Prior to the passage of SF 496, school already presented difficulties for him that are not faced by cisgender, straight children. We struggled for years, and continue to struggle, with him being misgendered, bullied, and called the wrong name. We even received death threats posted to social media and shouted at school functions, with no action taken by the school.
"I send my child to school, work, and play every day knowing there are many individuals who, given the opportunity, would harm my child simply because he exists as his authentic self. This law only serves to make life more perilous for him and more terrifying for me. This law claims to protect parental rights, but it does the opposite. Instead of sending my child to school and assuming he will be safe, as every parent of a cis-gendered, straight child does, I spend my days worrying about what potential damage this school day might do to my child’s physical or mental well-being."
Berry Stevens, eighth grader, West Des Moines (they/them)
"I’ve known since I was in third grade that I am a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. In sixth grade, I first changed my name and started using they/them pronouns because I knew I wasn’t a boy or a girl. I’m just a person. This is a concept that a lot of adults have trouble understanding.
"I am participating in this lawsuit because this new law hurts all kinds of kids and it hurts many of my friends. We deserve to be able to express ourselves safely at school and we deserve to see ourselves in media at school, especially in books. This law is trying to shut us down and make us be quiet and not openly discuss our lives, who we like, or who we truly are.
"I know what it's like to be bullied and harassed because of being in the LGBTQIA+ community. I wish my school would do something to actually prevent bullying before it happens, not just tell kids it's wrong after the fact. But because of this law, I feel like the school is too worried about getting in trouble with the state if they try to speak out. This law gets in the way of educators trying to make a safer, more inclusive space for all students.”
Rev. Brigit Stevens, Berry's mother, West Des Moines (she/hers)
"The impact of this law on my gender-fluid child is heartbreaking. My child has a right to be safe at school. They deserve to be in a supportive environment that lets them learn and thrive. But this bill is paralyzing teachers and administrators. It blocks them from preventing bullying and harassment and also from responding effectively after it happens.
"In September, Berry wore a T-shirt with a rainbow on it and had a Pride flag around their shoulders for a culture day at school, representing their pride in their queer culture. Berry was harassed about it. A group of students tried to grab the flag and then later, a student yelled hateful words across recess at Berry. Sadly, in this new school climate, Berry's friends said after the incident that they should be expecting this kind of treatment because they can’t expect others, including teachers and staff, to intervene.
“This law singles out our LGBTQ kids. It makes them unsafe at school. And it sends the message that there is something wrong with them. There is nothing wrong with Berry and kids like them. They are smart and funny, kind and loving. They have a right to be safe at school. This law is immoral and unjust. Berry should be worrying about math tests and show choir rehearsals, not bullying and harassment. Berry should be encouraged at school to be their fullest and most wonderful self. That is what we want and expect for all of our kids."
Becky Tayler, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, (she/hers)
"Our students deserve better than government censorship of important books, instruction, and classroom discussion that teach them about the world around them and reflect their own lives and experiences. This is not the 1950s; students should be able to learn about diverse topics and life experiences. Students are entitled to access fact-based information that enables them to lead healthy lives and learn about the history of the LGBTQ rights movement and the countless important figures in history who were LGBTQ. Teachers and librarians should be making these decisions, as they always have—not politicians seeking to score cheap political points at the expense of students.
“Students also deserve better than being forcibly outed. When a student feels more safe confiding in a teacher or counselor about their gender or sexuality than a parent, there’s a reason for that. Nearly one-third of LGBTQ youth report facing homelessness or housing instability due to mistreatment related to their LGBTQ+ identity."
In Iowa's famous Tinker v. Des Moines Schools case from 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that students have important First Amendment constitutional rights at school, which protect freedom of speech and expression. Students have a right to be open about who they are in school, access libraries free from censorship based on government’s disapproval of the messages in literature they wish to read, join together with other students to form extra-curricular groups on the same terms as other students, and be free of bullying and harassment based on their LGBTQ+ identities.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa by the legal team of Lambda Legal (Nathan Maxwell, Camilla Taylor, Karen Loewy, Kara Ingelhart, and Sasha Buchert), the ACLU of Iowa (Thomas Story, Rita Bettis Austen, Sharon Wegner, Shefali Aurora), and the law firm Jenner & Block LLP (Laurie Edelstein, Daniel Echeverri, Anna Lyons, Effiong Dampha, Kate Mather, and Joshua Armstrong).
Read the complaint here.