Penguin Random House Sues the US State of Iowa

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Penguin Random House, along with the Iowa State Education Association, has sued Iowa for its law against sexual content in books.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Seventy Four

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

See also: Ahead of Oral Arguments: Briefs Filed in Texas’ ‘Book Rating’ Law

PRH’s First Direct Suit of a State
In a news conference today (November 30), Penguin Random House has filed a lawsuit against the American state of Iowa, in concert with the Iowa State Education Association.

Iowa’s law called SF 496 “has created the paradox that under Iowa law, a 16-year-old student is old enough to consent to sex, but not old enough to read about it in school.”Dan Novack, Penguin Random House

This suit challenges Iowa’s state senate bill “SF 496,” which was enacted by the state’s legislature in May.

As the latest court challenge from the United States’ publishing industry to the furious surge in book-banning and other censorship strategies from some on the American far right, the plaintiffs in this instance include four high-visibility bestselling authors—Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Malinda Lo, and Jodi Picoult—and an Iowa high school student.

There are also two middle school teachers among the plaintiffs and a K-2 district librarian.

The filing was made today in the US district court for the Southern District of the Iowa Central Division, the most recent a coordinated multi-plaintiff court challenge that’s becoming a key response format to elevated levels of attempted censorship in the United States.

As stated in court papers filed by PRH and the education association today:

Iowa’s SF 496 “prohibits two categories of books.

“First, under the pretext of protecting students from ‘pornography,’ [the law] prohibits books in school libraries and classroom collections that contain a description or visual depiction of a ‘sex act.’ …

“Second, a portion of SF 496 also appears, and is being interpreted by Iowa school districts, to prohibit books in school libraries and classroom collections that ‘relate’ to ‘gender identity’ or ‘sexual orientation.’ This sweeping prohibition defines gender identity and sexual orientation so broadly that the prohibition could apply to all gender identities and any depiction of a romantic relationship. This prohibition violates the First and 14th Amendments [of the United States Constitution] because it is an impermissible content-based restriction and is unconstitutionally vague.

“In practice this prohibition appears to have been intended to apply, and has been applied, to remove only books containing LGBTQ+ themes or characters or those written by authors within the LGBTQ+ community. Therefore, this prohibition also violates the First and 14th Amendments because it discriminates against LGBTQ+ viewpoints and authors.”

‘Sweeping Legislation That Eliminates Student Access’

The latest court-action response from the United States’ publishing industry to the surge in book-banning and other censorship strategies from some on the far right, the plaintiffs in this instance include four high-visibility bestselling authors—Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Malinda Lo, and Jodi Picoult—and an Iowa high school student; two middle school teachers; and a K-2 district librarian.

At the heart of the newly launched suit is an assertion that the First Amendment in the American Constitution guarantees the right both to read and to be read (in the plaintiff’s emphasis), as well as to “to exchange ideas and viewpoints without unreasonable government interference. The new Iowa state law flouts this core principle of the Constitution,” PRH’s press materials say, “with sweeping legislation that eliminates student access to books with ideas and perspectives disliked by state authorities. 

“The lawsuit further contends that Iowa’s stated rationale for SF 496—protecting children from pornography—is a  pretext and contrary to the definition of obscenity as determined by the US Supreme Court in Miller vs. California (1973),” per the publisher’s media messaging today.

Related article: Banned Books Week: PRH’s ‘Banned Wagon’ Rolls Out.’ Image: Penguin Random House

Iowa’s Republican governor Kim Reynolds signed the bill into law in May, and the measure was timed to take effect on July 1, as reported by Brooke Migdon at The Hill in her story on the American Civil Liberties Union’s challenge, partnered by Lambda Legal and filed on Tuesday (November 28). Like Ron DeSantis in Florida, Iowa’s governor casts this type of action in the educational arena as a matter of giving parents better control of their children’s classroom experiences.

Migdon notes in her article that the law has “an exception carved out for certain religious texts including the Bible.”

As covered in our report on PEN America’s September release of its 2022-2023 school year report on censorship, the organization cites a total 3,362 books banned during that time frame, an increase of nearly 400 percent over the previous year’s such censorship.

At the Wall Street Journal this afternoon, Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg notes, “This is the first time that Penguin Random House has directly sued a state over its educational policies as they relate to school libraries and books in teacher classrooms.”

Nihar Malaviya: ‘A Hallmark of American Democracy’

Nihar Malaviya

Nihar Malaviya, worldwide CEO of Penguin Random House, in a prepared statement reminds those following the story that while the case is yet another in the United States at the moment, its potential impact—and the responsibility of the world’s largest trade publisher—is international.

“Our mission of connecting authors and their stories to readers around the world,” Malaviya says, “contributes to the free flow of ideas  and perspectives that is a hallmark of American democracy—and we will always stand by it.

“We know that not every book we publish will be for every reader, but we must protect the right for all Americans, including students, parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians, to have equitable access to  books and to continue to decide what they read.”

PRH”s Dan Novack: ‘A Book Ban, Plain and Simple’

In today’s news conference, Dan Novack, vice-president and associate general counsel with Penguin Random House, spoke with journalists about the plaintiffs’ position that SF 496 “has created the paradox that under Iowa law, a 16-year-old student is old enough to consent to sex, but not old enough to read about it in school.

Dan Novack

“The ban applies equally to fiction and nonfiction alike, meaning that it doesn’t just block ideas, it blocks information. …

“Proponents of censorship complain that our schools are awash in pornography. But when you look at banned book lists, they’re full of seminal works like Native Son (Richard Wright); The Color Purple (Alice Walker); 1984 (George Orwell). Those are all books that are currently on banned-book lists in Iowa in various districts. No great American novel can survive SF 496. It’s a return to the moral panics of decades past. …

Related article: ‘PEN: US School-Year Book Bannings Jump 33 Percent Over Last Year.’ Image – Getty iStockphoto: HapaBapa

“Government authorities cannot violate the First Amendment right to free speech by pretending that school grounds are constitutional no-fly zones. If the government doesn’t like an author’s expressed viewpoints, it can compete in the marketplace of ideas by introducing speech of its own. Banning a book is the resort of a government that has lost confidence in the power of its own message.

“Penguin Random House is not asking anyone to read or buy our books who doesn’t want them. But we can insist on them not being blocked because of their departure from government orthodoxy. Not only are book bans wrong, they’re counter-productive.

“If a student cannot discover quality books curated by trained and dedicated professionals such as teachers and librarians, unreliable sources from the Internet and social media will fill the gap. Students will be more likely to enter the world ill-equipped to handle challenging perspectives or ideas. they’ll be at a loss for information. And they’ll lose their ability to adapt and grow as independent thinkers.

“This is very much an issue of democracy.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on book bannings is here, more on censorship in the broader context is here, and more on the freedom to publish and freedom of expression is here. More on Penguin Random House is here, and more on PEN America is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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