Penguin Random House & the Iowa State Education Association File Lawsuit Against the State of Iowa’s SF 496


Lawsuit Marks Historic Challenge to Protect the American Right to Disseminate, Receive, and Read Constitutionally Protected Books.

Plaintiffs Include Iowa State Education Association, an Iowa High School Student, Two Middle School Teachers, a K–12 District Librarian, and Four Bestselling and Critically Acclaimed Authors—Laurie Halse Anderson, John Green, Malinda Lo, and Jodi Picoult.

(New York, November 30, 2023)—Penguin Random House (PRH), alongside the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), has filed a lawsuit against the state of Iowa challenging its recently enacted Senate File 496 (SF 496). PRH and ISEA are joined by four renowned authors whose books have been banned or removed in Iowa—Laurie Halse Anderson (Speak and Shout), John Green (Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars), Malinda Lo (Last Night at the Telegraph Club and A Scatter of Light), and Jodi Picoult (19 Minutes)—three educators, a high school student, and a parent.

SF 496 was enacted in May 2023 and prohibits books featuring any description or visual depiction of sex—regardless of context—from public school and classroom libraries, covering students all the way through twelfth grade. SF 496 also prohibits books relating in any way to gender identity or sexual orientation from school and classroom libraries for students through sixth grade.  Both bans encompass fiction and non-fiction alike. The challenge will seek a court order blocking enforcement of the book ban provisions of SF 496. These restrictions violate the First Amendment free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The First Amendment guarantees the right to read and to be read, to exchange ideas and viewpoints without unreasonable government interference. The new Iowa state law flouts this core principle of the Constitution with sweeping legislation that eliminates student access to books with ideas and perspectives disliked by state authorities. The lawsuit further contends that Iowa’s stated rationale for SF 496—protecting children from pornography—is a pretext and contrary to the definition of obscenity as determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller vs. California (1973).

The student plaintiff is a senior at Urbandale High School and, as a result of SF 496, cannot access books including The Color Purple and The Handmaid’s Tale. District librarian Mari Butler Abry and middle school teachers Alyson Browder and Daniel Gutmann have each been subjected to widespread removal of books from their school and classroom libraries. Making restricted books available to their students risks severe penalties for themselves and their districts.

“Our mission of connecting authors and their stories to readers around the world contributes to the free flow of ideas and perspectives that is a hallmark of American democracy—and we will always stand by it,” says Nihar Malaviya, CEO, Penguin Random House. “We know that not every book we publish will be for every reader, but we must protect the right for all Americans, including students, parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians, to have equitable access to books and to continue to decide what they read.”

SF 496 takes away the long-standing freedom of teachers and librarians to choose books for their libraries. Since enacted, SF 496 has resulted in chaos across the state as educators and school districts scramble to make sense of its vague, overbroad, and discriminatory rules in advance of its penalty provisions taking effect on January 1, 2024. Without clear guidance from the state, school districts are creating “Removal Lists” based on their own interpretations of SF 496. In Urbandale, Iowa, books prohibited from school and classroom libraries include Beloved, by Toni Morrison; Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison; The Bluest Eye, 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; and Native Son by Richard Wright.

“This country has long upheld the principle that authors have the right to communicate their stories and ideas to the public, including students, and that students have a right to explore, choose, and learn from those books without discriminatory interference from the government,” says Anke Steinecke, EVP, Chief Legal Officer and General Council, Penguin Random House. “Statutes like SF 496 undermine these important rights and wrongfully subject librarians and educators and school districts to penalty just for doing their jobs.”

“The professionals leading our classrooms, overseeing our libraries, and working with our students are trained in what is age-relevant and essential to include in our classrooms and on our shelves—determinations which are based on research and scientific understanding of developmentally appropriate concepts and ideas that best nurture and grow minds to successfully live in a democratic society and among other world populations,” said ISEA President Mike Beranek. “We stand firmly on the side of the experts in our schools and the parents supporting their children. We know parental choice and involvement are critical to a child’s success in school. We also know that there are systems in school districts across the state that specifically outline how a parent or guardian can object to their student participating or reading a book they feel is not appropriate for their child. We take issue with a law that also censors materials for everyone else’s child,” added Beranek.

Penguin Random House is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by PEN America in Escambia County School District and School Board (FL) over unconstitutional book bans.

The ISEA represents education professionals and employees in more than 300 school districts across the state.

The plaintiffs are represented in the lawsuit by ArentFox Schiff LLP and Weinhardt Law.

Claire von Schilling, EVP & Director Corporate Communications & Social Responsibility, Penguin Random House

Dominique Cimina, SVP, Publicity, Corporate Communications, & Author Brand Strategy, Random House Children’s Books

Jean Hessburg, Public Relations Director, Iowa State Education Association


Penguin Random House, the world’s largest trade book publisher, is dedicated to its mission to ignite a universal passion for reading by creating books for everyone. The company, which employs more than 10,000 people globally, is owned by Bertelsmann. With more than 300 imprints and brands on six continents, Penguin Random House comprises adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction print and digital English, German, and Spanish-language trade book publishing businesses in more than 20 countries worldwide. With over 16,000 new titles and more than 700 million print, audio, and eBooks sold annually, Penguin Random House’s publishing lists include more than 80 Nobel Prize laureates and hundreds of the world’s most widely read authors.

Iowa State Education Association represents preK-12 educators, education support professionals, community college faculty, Area Education Agency professionals, retired educators, and aspiring educators with contracts covering more than 50,000 employees. We promote quality public education by placing students at the center of everything we do while advocating for education professionals.

ArentFox Schiff LLP
With more than 600 lawyers and policy professionals, ArentFox Schiff LLP represents corporations, governments, private individuals, and trade associations. ArentFox Schiff has offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, and the firm provides strategic legal counsel to clients that range from Fortune 500 corporations and start-ups, to trade associations and foreign governments. As one of the most diverse general practice law firms in the country, ArentFox Schiff has roots in government service, a focus on legal excellence, and a commitment to the administration of justice. ArentFox Schiff has earned the distinction of being considered a premier law firm from The American Lawyer, Chambers USA, and Legal 500.


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Posted: November 30, 2023