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Proposed bill would strengthen restrictions on books in Iowa

The bill bans books featured on this library shelf. Photo by Liv Klassen | Photo Editor

Mom Teri Patrick didn’t expect her child’s school librarians to read every book in the library. She just assumed they were unaware that a book in their collection contained a visual depiction of oral sex. 

So, she filled out a reconsideration form to remove the book “Gender Queer” from the library at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School in West Des Moines, IA. To her surprise, the district did not remove the book. 

That’s because two review committees and the West Des Moines Community School District’s board all voted to retain “Gender Queer: A Memoir” The award-winning book was deemed to have artistic merit as an autobiographical coming-of-age story, and officials claimed the scene in question was taken out of context. 

“I guess I don’t care if there’s literary value,” said Jenn Turner, the chair of the Polk County chapter of the parental rights group Moms for Liberty. “Why are there photos of oral sex in our children’s libraries?” 

Patrick discovered Moms for Liberty during the months-long process of challenging the book. She took her case all the way to the Iowa Board of Education, which ultimately declined to hear her appeal. 

Her story is not an isolated incident. The American Library Association tracked 1,250 book challenges at schools and public libraries in 2022 – the highest number since the organization began tracking the issue over 20 years ago.

Across the country, attempts to remove books from school have been referred to as book bans, though Moms For Liberty disputes this term. 

“When you can go to Amazon or you can get the [book at a] public library or even get it online, [or at] Barnes & Noble, it’s not banned, and that’s where that whole language gets twisted,” Patrick said.

Sara Hayden-Parris has been a vocal opponent of organizations like Moms for Liberty. She started the intellectual freedom organization Annie’s Foundation to dispute book bans and fight to keep access to diverse literature in schools.

Hayden-Parris believes that even if books are still available for purchase, their removal from public schools and libraries prevents people not privileged enough to purchase the texts from accessing them.

“These are book bans by any stretch of the imagination. You’re restricting access,” Hayden-Parris said. “Saying that kids can go on Amazon and buy it is not a good excuse.”

In Iowa, a section of Governor Kim Reynolds’s education package would make it easier to remove books from public school libraries.

The bill would require books to be “age-appropriate” and not include “graphic descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.” Additionally, it would require school districts to list all materials in their libraries and provide a detailed process for parents to request the removal of any materials on their website. 

Dan Chibnall, a Drake University librarian and professor of librarianship, opposes the bill. He said that libraries have collection development policies that act as “the ten commandments.” Those policies can include restrictions for books to certain age groups, which he claims makes the bill unnecessary. 

“If you do have a large school library that’s accessible by everyone from second grade to seniors, there may be within that library shelves [where the] books are only for the high schoolers,” Chibnall said.

The education package, which passed the House Tuesday, previously passed the Senate but will return with several amendments from the House. The Senate must now pass the bill with the attached amendments for it to be sent to the governor’s desk. 

Patrick’s loss at the Iowa Board of Education has not deterred her from challenging books. In September, she challenged two more books at Valley High School. She believes her current experience going through the review process shows why reforms from the state are necessary.

“I said ‘I would like to speak,’ and I found out that they already had their first committee meeting on two of the books,” Patrick said. “And I wasn’t even allowed to speak.”

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