Judge Stephen Locher, nominated by President Biden to the Southern District of Iowa, issued a preliminary injunction against a broad Iowa law that mandates removal of library books and other censorship in public schools. The opinion found that the law has already caused the censorship of hundreds of books and likely violates the First Amendment. The December 2023 decision was in GLBT Youth in Iowa Schools Task Force v Reynolds.
What is this case about?
In May 2023, Iowa enacted a law mandating broad censorship in public schools. It requires the removal of all books and materials from K-12 libraries that describe or depict a “sex act,” regardless of context. Failure to remove such material can subject a school district or official to disciplinary action starting in January 2024. The law also forbids public schools from providing programs or instruction to students in grades K-6 relating to “gender identity” or “sexual orientation.”
Two lawsuits immediately challenged the law in federal court. One was filed by publishers, authors, parents, and a state education association. The other was brought by a task force on LGBTQ+ students established by the state civil rights commission and by parents. The second suit also challenged a part of the law requiring schools to notify parents if a student seeks an accommodation relating to gender identity, such as using a different name or pronoun than in school records.
All the challengers sought a preliminary injunction against the law as the litigation proceeds. Judge Stephen Locher, to whom the cases were assigned, held a consolidated hearing, and considered extensive evidence concerning the problems caused by and the constitutionality of the challenged provisions.
How Did Judge Locher Rule and Why is it Important?
Judge Locher wrote a thorough 45-page opinion in which he stopped the library and program censorship provisions from going into effect indefinitely, until and unless the litigation concludes that they are constitutional. He ruled that none of the plaintiffs had standing to challenge the parental notice provision.
Judge Locher concluded that the library censorship provision is “incredibly broad” and had already caused “the removal of hundreds of books from school libraries,” such as “nonfiction history books, classic works of fiction, Pulitzer Prize winning contemporary novels,” and “even books designed to help students avoid being victimized by sexual assault.” Examples included Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Truth about Rape edited by Robert Golden, and Night by Elie Wiesel.
Neither the court nor the state, Judge Locher wrote, could find “a single case” upholding such broad school censorship. Based on the established facts and prior precedent, he concluded, the challenged provision amounts to the “suppression of ideas” and an effort to impose a “pall of orthodoxy” over the schools that likely violates the First Amendment and has already caused “irreparable injury” through the loss of “First Amendment freedoms.” Locher also found the library censorship provisions unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.
Vagueness and overbreadth were also the key deficiencies in the program restriction provisions, according to Judge Locher. As written, he explained, it forbids any instruction or program in grades K through 6 “relating to any gender identity” or “any sexual orientation,” whether “gay or straight.” Thus a teacher would violate the law, he went on, by making books available to students that “refer to any character’s gender or sexual orientation,” which includes “virtually every book ever written.” In other words, he wrote, it forbids “any instruction” that recognizes that “anyone is male or female or in a relationship of any sort.”
This is so “wildly overbroad,” Locher explained, that every teacher and school district has likely been violating it “since the day the school year started.” He wrote that this renders the law “void for vagueness” under the due process clause because the state will have “unfettered discretion” to decide how and against whom to enforce it. The state’s claim that the law’s history is aimed only at gay or transgender identity or orientation, he concluded, is flatly “inconsistent with the plain language of the statute.”
Judge Locher’s decision is obviously important to stopping censorship and promoting the freedom to learn and to read in Iowa public schools. Although it is not formally binding in other courts, it serves as an important example and precedent as courts around the country deal with challenges to other censorship efforts. It also serves as an example of the importance of promptly confirming fair-minded Biden nominees like Judge Locher to our federal courts.