Mothers call for more parental say in restricting ‘obscene’ books in schools

By: - February 6, 2023 9:18 pm

Five parents shared their experiences challenging school library or classroom books with “obscene” language or images. They spoke at a House Government Oversight Committee meeting Feb. 6, 2023. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Five mothers told Iowa lawmakers Monday why they believed eight books with narratives focused on people of color and LGBT people should be taken out of or restricted in school libraries for having sexually explicit material and derogatory language.

The parents spoke at a hearing by the Iowa House Oversight Committee. They shared their experiences trying to remove or limit certain books from their school district’s middle and high school libraries or from curriculum in required classes.

Rep. Brooke Boden, R-Indianola, who chaired the committee, did not invite school administrators, teachers or others who object to restricting the books in question. She said they would be invited to speak at a future meeting.

Republican lawmakers are again trying to advance legislation that would require school districts and charter schools to make classroom materials available to parents along with a list of their library books and a process to challenge them. House File 5 is awaiting consideration by the House Education Committee. Lawmakers didn’t discuss the bill during Monday’s hearing.

The five mothers talked about their experiences with materials that contain descriptions of masturbation, sexual acts, sexual assault, swear words, racial slurs and racial stereotypes. Some read explicit passages from some of the books.

Parents sought to restrict books

The parents who spoke had attempted to have their local school districts take action on books in school libraries. They described going through their district’s “reconsideration” process to determine whether a book should be restricted by age or parental consent, or be fully removed from the school library.

Other parents said schools did not adequately inform parents about books included in classwork so they could ask for their child to be given alternative materials.

The mothers argued the books are pornographic, including “Gender Queer,” “The Bluest Eye,” “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” “The Hate U Give,” “Fun Home” and “Lawn Boy.”

“This isn’t about LGBTQ material. This is about pornographic material, pornography, plain and simple,” said Samantha Fett, a former Carlisle school board member, reading a statement from another parent in the school district, Brenda Smith. Smith asked school officials to reconsider the book “Gender Queer.”

Some of the parents raised concerns with lawmakers about some of the same books last year, as lawmakers considered a bill to create a criminal penalty for teachers or school staff to provide “obscene material” or “hard-core pornography” in school libraries or curriculum. The proposal did not pass.

“Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe was the most-banned book of 2021 but it never made the best-seller list. (Photo via the Minnesota Reformer)

Another parent, Teri Patrick of Clive, brought a challenge to the Iowa Board of Education after the West Des Moines School District decided to keep “Gender Queer” on library shelves at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School. In August, the state board reaffirmed the school district’s verdict, allowing the book to stay on school shelves.

The graphic novel, written by Maia Kobabe, features scenes involving masturbation and sexual activity. The author also describes their experience with gender dysphoria in the book, including having negative reactions to their first period and the experience of getting a pap smear.

Patrick said schools restrict internet access to explicit materials, and those same standards should apply to whether books are available in K-12 libraries.

Amy Dea, a mother in the Carroll Community School District, said she identified 76 books available in her school district libraries that contain sexually explicit or obscene material, which she said were not age appropriate for 14- to 17-year-olds.

Democrats say challenges threaten freedom of expression

While Democrats on the committee thanked the parents for sharing their views, they also said  these challenges were threats to First Amendment rights. Removing these books on the behest of some parents interfere with the rights of other parents who want their children to have access to these materials, Rep. Lindsay James, D-Dubuque said.

James said the current system is working, because it allows parents to direct the school to deny their children access to certain materials. She said some of the parents who spoke at the committee meeting did not fully go through the process available prevent their children from accessing these books. Some of the parents challenged books in classes their children were not enrolled in.

At least four of the mothers who testified at the committee meeting were members of “Moms for Liberty,” a conservative “parental rights” nonprofit. Gov. Kim Reynolds spoke at an event the group hosted in Des Moines Thursday.

James compared the current trend of challenging school books to historical efforts to ban books.

“Long before we had Moms for Liberty challenging ‘The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,’ we had the Daughters of the Confederacy leading up to the Civil War challenging ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,'” James said.

The committee meeting room was limited to those who had seats, but people outside the room chanted “Ho ho, hey hey, banning books is not okay.”

Sam Helmick, a librarian in Iowa City, attended school meetings where books were challenged and said parents were informed how they could control their child’s access to those books. But the parents argued that books with mature topics should not be available or discussed with students.

“A textbook isn’t promoting like Nazism because we’re covering World War II and I’m not quite sure why a text that’s exploring sexual themes, themes of injustice, themes of inclusion, difficult hard topics would be perceived as pornography,” Helmick said. “The presence of an idea is not an endorsement of it.”

GOP lawmakers: Restricting access is not ‘banning’ books

Republican lawmakers disputed the characterization that determining age-appropriateness of books in school libraries counted as “banning books.”

“I think there’s an unfortunate narrative being created in this discussion because I think the very thought of it, Rep. James alluded to it, brings up horrific moments in human history,” Rep. Steven Holt, R-Denison, said. “But the narrative is a false one. ”

Holt argued that limiting access to “obscene” materials for minors through a system like the U.S. movie rating system, is not “banning” those materials. Holt also disagreed with the ideas that books with explicit material should be kept on school shelves because of their “literary value” alone.

“I have no doubt that there are some things in these books that might connect to young people. And I’m not having any arguments with any of that,” Holt said. “The point is, does that outweigh the other stuff? … If something has literary value, if we’re at a point that no matter what else it depicts, no matter what the pictures, are no matter what else it depicts, we’re okay with it being supplied to young people, then I shudder for our future.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Amy Dea’s surname.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.