The truth about Iowa’s book ban

Legislators aren’t telling you what the law really says

August 8, 2023 8:00 am

Iowa’s new law seems intended to sow confusion and encourage schoolteachers and school librarians to ban books from their shelves. (Photo by Ed Tibbetts)

Iowa Writers 'Collaborative. Linking Iowa readers and writers.The Iowa book-ban law is working exactly as planned. Don’t let them tell you any different.

This spring, Iowa Republicans passed a law they want you to believe reasonably outlawed smut in the school library. We heard repeatedly that perverts were trying to groom our children, and somebody had to stop them.

Who could argue with that, right?

The problem is, not only is the premise false, but now we’re learning how potentially damaging the new law is. Just look at the Urbandale Community School District.

About a week ago, published reports said the Des Moines-area district had created a list of nearly 400 books officials there thought might be banned under Iowa’s new law.

The books about LGBTQ people — the ones that consumed much of the legislative debate — were on the list. But so were plenty of others, according to the Des Moines Register, a lot of them familiar American works, some of them classics: “A Farwell to Arms,” by Ernest Hemingway. “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker. “Sophie’s Choice,” by William Styron. “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” by James Baldwin. “Brave New World,” by Aldous Huxley. “Ulysses,” by James Joyce.

School district officials told the Register they weren’t sure all these books ran afoul of the ban, but they were being careful.

Small wonder. Over the past couple years, educators have been in the sights of some Republican leaders.

Districts haven’t been getting much help from the Iowa Department of Education, either.

As the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported, the department said Thursday they weren’t issuing clear guidance on the law, even though districts only have until January to be in compliance. Instead, department officials say they’ll deal with questions on a “case-by-case” basis.

This, even as the head of the state board of education concedes there’s a lot of confusion about this law across the state.

Which, of course, isn’t what Republican leaders are saying. They say the law is quite clear, and that all they’re doing is outlawing graphic descriptions of sex acts. But that’s not what the law says.

The bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds says that materials should be “age-appropriate,” and that age-appropriate “does not include any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act as defined in section 702.17.” That code section graphically describes various sex acts. But — and this is important — the new law doesn’t require that the “description” or “visual depictions” themselves be “graphic.”

In fact, the Senate explicitly rejected the idea that the descriptions be “graphic.” The House passed an amendment to make that clear, but it never made it into the law. So, what does “description” of a sex act mean?

Merriam-Webster defines “description” as “an act of describing.” Specifically: “discourse intended to give a mental image of something experienced.”

Would this include John Grimes? The 14-year-old protagonist in James Baldwin’s 1953 novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is tortured to his soul over masturbating in a school bathroom. Johnny’s father is a preacher, and he’s been taught his whole life about sin. But as Baldwin writes, John Grimes awoke on the day of his birthday in 1935 scared he’d be “bound in Hell a thousand years” for what he’d done.

Baldwin described how John Grimes, in spite of the warnings, “had sinned with his hands.”

“In the school lavatory, alone, thinking of the boys older, bigger, braver … he had watched in himself a transformation of which he would never speak,” Baldwin wrote.

Graphic, no. But could it be considered a description; a “discourse intended to give a mental image of something experienced?”

If you were a school librarian, what would you say? Would you play it safe and err on the side of caution, especially if you were worried about sanction?

Iowa law lacks clarity — and that’s by design

This is how the new law is working its way across Iowa. And not just for educators; other Iowans are at risk, too.

Consider this: What if a school district — there are more than 300 of them statewide — doesn’t like John Grimes’ scorn for organized religion and his father, which are clear themes in this book?

What if it decides to use the ban on “describing” sex acts as a pretext to keep “Go Tell It on the Mountain” out of the school library?

I can certainly see a school board in some parts of Iowa wanting to ban a book where the main character hates his father and his religion. And if not a school board, perhaps newly emboldened activists.

Then what? Iowa’s governor has said any book banned in one district should be restricted in them all. It’s not like this book hasn’t been banned before.

I bring up “Go Tell It on the Mountain” not because the sex is graphic. But precisely because it is not.

I bring it up because it’s a good example of how vaguely written laws can play out in real life.

Republicans claim Urbandale overreacted and its expansive list was drafted to frighten people; that this wasn’t the intent of the Iowa Legislature.

If so, why not make it clear that only “graphic descriptions” of sex acts were against the law? Why make an explicit exemption for religious texts like the Bible, and not for books about people like John Grimes? Why risk confusion?

Unless that’s what you wanted.

On Thursday, we learned Urbandale officials decided to trim their list to just 65 books. According to the Register, the district said they would pause removing books with LGBTQ-related themes and focus on those that depict sex acts.

I’m not sure this added a lot of clarity.

Hemingway was taken off the original list — and so was John Grimes. But “Sophie’s Choice” was taken off the list, too, according to the Register. And anybody who has read William Styron’s controversial novel about Holocaust survivor Sophie Zawistowska knows the sex in this book is quite explicit. There is no way it would pass muster with even the vague terms of Iowa’s new law. Which tells me there still is a lot of confusion over what the law means.

And this is what really counts: what the law says and what it means — not what some legislators are now telling people it means. (I won’t even get into the idea of banning books regardless of their artistic merit.)

The truth is, Iowa legislators have let the vagueness of this law hang like a sword over educators who, for months, have been told they’re trying to perversely groom children, and who for months have been warned they need to get in line — even if they aren’t being told where the line is.

The education department may be well-meaning when it says officials there will try to guide educators on a “case-by-case” basis. But I’m not sure even they could adequately define this law. And if I were a school librarian, I’m not sure I’d risk it. In their place, would you?

Iowa’s book ban is working exactly as intended.

This column was originally published by Ed Tibbetts’ Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. It is republished here through the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Ed Tibbetts
Ed Tibbetts

Ed Tibbetts, of Davenport, has covered politics, government and trends for more than three decades in the Quad-Cities. A former reporter and editorial page editor for the Quad-City Times, he now is a freelance journalist who publishes the Along the Mississippi newsletter on Substack. He is a member of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.