(NEW YORK)— PEN America today filed an amicus brief to support two lawsuits against a statute in Iowa that has resulted in sweeping book bans across the state. The law, Senate File 496, prohibits any books or materials in public school libraries that contain any “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act”—regardless of context— all the way through 12th grade.

In its legal filing, PEN America argues that the law mandating book removals violates the Constitution, undermines public education, and creates “a culture of fear and self-censorship” resulting in the removal of thousands of books, many of them treasures of classical literature, such as George Orwell’s 1984 and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

The law “constitutes grave government overreach that has caused substantial harm to Iowan students, the writers who aim to reach them, and the larger culture of free expression,” PEN America’s brief states. “Neither the Constitution nor the foundations of democracy allow such results.”

Katie Blankenship, director of PEN America’s Florida office, said: “Under the guise of protecting children from so-called age-inappropriate content, laws like SF496 are a smokescreen for censorship of constitutionally-protected expression and access to information. All of us who value our Constitutional freedoms should be standing up for the First Amendment, our authors, their stories and ideas. Every day that students are robbed of books as a result of Iowa’s rights-effacing law is a day they are not getting the education and access to information they deserve.” 

Blankenship, an attorney, and legal fellow, Elly Brinkley, drafted the brief..

The writers and free expression group, which has been at the forefront of documenting the rise of book bans since 2021, states in its legal brief that book bans like those mandated by Iowa’s law deny students critical access to literature, “preventing students from reading literature that grows alongside them, failing to recognize that as readers mature, they need access to books with more mature and complex ideas.”

The brief also notes the chilling effect on writers, who are now “incentivized to avoid complex topics that may be of critical importance to young readers lest their books no longer make it to the shelves. That self-censorship is disastrous for young adult and children’s literature, impeding writers’ abilities to confront difficult ideas and truths and to reach their intended audiences.”

PEN America’s legal filing urges the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold the district court’s injunction of what is referred to as the “Library Program”of SF 496. In his opinion issued last January, U.S. District Judge Stephen Locher for the Southern District of Iowa criticized the law as “incredibly broad,” noting it has resulted in the removal “of hundreds of books from school libraries.” Parallel lawsuits have been filed by major publishing houses with authors and LGBTQ advocacy groups seeking a permanent injunction, which PEN America supports.

Since the law’s introduction, at least 1,820 books (including 615 unique titles) have been removed from library shelves in Iowa’s public schools, even before the law was due to go into effect this past January. The books both fiction and nonfiction included classic and celebrated titles such as: Beloved, Song of Solomon, and The Bluest Eye, all 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; Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, and Native Son by Richard Wright.

PEN America argues in its brief that not only does the law represent “viewpoint-based discrimination” but the definition of “age appropriate” is so sweeping that it captures a wide range of literature “that has historically been a staple of middle and high school curriculum.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057