Five Publishers Join PRH in Its Lawsuit of Iowa

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Challenging a bill that prohibits books describing sex and sexual orientation in the state of Iowa’s school libraries.

The plaintiffs-appellees’ addendum filed December 12, 2023,includes an accounting from the Des Moines Register of more than 400 titles pulled from educational shelves in the state. An online accounting from December 20 is here. In this excerpt, you can see targeted books including ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ ‘The Kite Runner,’ ‘The Color Purple,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and more. | Image: Plaintiff-Appellee’s Addendum 7, Penguin Random House LLC et al v. John Robbins in his official capacity as president of the Iowa State Board of Education et al, defendant-appellants

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

‘We Must Stand Firmly With Our Authors and Readers’
As Publishing Perspectives readers will recall, at the end of November,  Penguin Random House filed a lawsuit against the American state of Iowa, in concert with the Iowa State Education Association. This lawsuit challenges an Iowa senate bill which, according to court papers filed by PRH and the education association, “prohibits books in school libraries and classroom collections” that contain content about sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation.

Also listed as plaintiffs at the time were high-profile authors who have seen their books removed from Iowan school and classroom libraries: Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Malinda Lo, and Jodi Picoult. And there are an Iowa high school student and three educators also among the original plaintiffs.

Reportedly, Green has seen his Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars removed from Iowa shelves, while Anderson’s Speak and Shout were removed, Lo’s Last Night at the Telegraph Club and A Scatter of Light have been removed, and Picoult—who has been outspoken in her disagreement with book banning—has seen her Nineteen Minutes pulled from circulation.

Today (April 15), it’s being announced that five major publishers are joining PRH in that suit, challenging the book-banning provisions of “Senate File 496,” or “SF 496,” which Grant Gerlock at Iowa Public Radio writes, “has caused school districts to pull hundreds of books from library shelves.”

An injunction issued by US District Court Judge Stephen Locher in late December stopped the law’s book-banning and teacher-muzzling provisions: SF496 prohibits teachers from offering instruction that involves sexual orientation and gender identity in elementary school, and it calls for school library and classroom books to be free of descriptions of, or action involving, sex acts.

Today’s newcomers to the plaintiffs’ roster are:

  • Hachette Book Group
  • HarperCollins Publishers
  • Macmillan Publishers
  • Simon & Schuster
  • Sourcebooks

‘To Access Books Without Government Interference’

In joining the lawsuit led by Penguin Random House, these five publishers have issued a joint statement that says, in part, “We as publishers are uniting in our unwavering commitment to stand with educators, librarians, students, authors, and readers against the unconstitutional censorship measures being imposed by the state of Iowa.

“We as publishers are uniting in our unwavering commitment to stand with educators, librarians, students, authors, and readers against the unconstitutional censorship measures being imposed by the state of Iowa.”Joint statement: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Sourcebooks

“The alarming rise of book bans across the country demands our collective action. Now, more than ever, we must stand firmly with our authors and readers to defend the fundamental right to read and the freedom of expression.”

Many trade visitors who were at London Book Fair and/or the Bologna Children’s Book Fair will recognize here what the International Publishers Association (IPA), working with four other major sister international organizations, has dubbed the “Trinity of Freedoms” that are being pressured in many parts of the world under autocratic dynamics that challenge democratic values: freedom to publish, freedom to read, freedom of expression. The World Expression Forum (WEXFO) is also programming a special afternoon of programming on the “trinity” and is challenges on May 27 in Lillehammer.

With the anticipated January 1 implementation of the law having been temporarily blocked by Judge Locher’s injunction, the state of Iowa appealed, and the plaintiffs filed a brief in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in opposition to that attempt to have the injunction overturned.

At the time of the December 29 issuance of Judge Lochner’s injunction, PRH vice-president and associate general counsel Dan Novack said, in part, “Penguin Random House will continue to stand up for the First Amendment, our authors, their stories and ideas, and the students and educators who have the right to access and discuss books without government interference.”

Today’s arrival of the balance of the United States’ largest publishers—Domnique Raccah’s Sourcebooks is the nation’s largest independent house—clearly is a gathering of forces meant to demonstrate what the world book publishing industry concurs is an unacceptable trend toward efforts to undermine that “trinity of freedoms.” The presence of this particular cohort of publishing houses signals that however competitive their work may be on the American and international markets, there’s no daylight between them on the constitutional freedoms that underlie the work they do at every level from their authors’ right to write without self-censorship to a marketing team’s right to communicate the value of its literature and the consumer’s right to read that work.

Penguin Random House’s media messaging today points out that books removed from Iowa libraries as a result of the passage of Senate File 696 include:

  • Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  •  As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  • Forever. . . , by Judy Blume
  • Push: A Novel by Sapphire
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Native Son by Richard Wright

The plaintiffs are represented in the lawsuit by ArentFox Schiff LLP and Weinhardt Law.

Senate File 296 originally was enacted in Iowa in May 2023. Penguin Random House filed the initial lawsuit on November 30. As our readers know, PRH is also a plaintiff in a suit filed with PEN America in Florida’s Escambia County school district and school board.

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, more on Hachette Book Group is here, more on HarperCollins is here, more on Simon & Schuster is here, and more on Sourcebooks 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 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.