MONKS – Some parents, community members and even state lawmakers demanding the removal from school libraries of certain books they deem inappropriate, librarians and LGBTQ youth advocates are pushing back what they see as censorship and an attack on marginalized students.

And an expert from Iowa says that at least one of the disputed books does not meet the legal definition of obscene.

The books that have been criticized vary, but typically feature LGBTQ characters or authors, and typically the person requesting the book’s deletion disputes passages that describe sexual acts. Other books that have been targeted feature characters of color who describe their difficult life experiences.

Two Republican lawmakers from the state of Iowa – Jake Chapman d’Adel, President of the Senate; and Brad Zaun of Urbandale, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee – recently said they support the prosecution of teachers and librarians who distribute books which Chapman and Zaun deem obscene.

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“As a father of five, I can tell you that if this material was in my school, I would go to law enforcement, request a criminal investigation, and ask for every teacher who released this. information be held criminally responsible, ”Chapman said at a recent Johnston school board meeting. Chapman lives in Adel.

Chapman went on to say that he would do everything in his power as President of the Senate “to protect our children” by proposing legislation that would create a new criminal offense for disseminating obscene material to a minor.

Zaun issued his own warning to educators.

“My warning to all teachers and administrators is that you are going to be in jail. Because it distributes pornography, ”Zaun said.

At least one of the disputed books is unlikely to be considered obscene by legal standards, said Todd Pettys, a law professor at the University of Iowa whose areas of interest include constitutional law.

While discussing this issue, Pettys pointed to a series of social media posts he recently posted on the subject. A key point, Pettys said, is that state law says that one passage is not enough for a book to be considered obscene. For a book to be considered legally obscene, it must, by state law, contain obscene material when taken “as a whole” and must lack “serious literary, scientific, political or artistic merit. “.

Pettys uses as an example one of the books that has been a frequent target, “The Absolutely True Diary” by Sherman Alexie. According to Pettys, the book is about an Indian boy who attends a predominantly white school off-reserve and describes his experiences and challenges at his new school.

The book contains a passage, Pettys said, where the narrator says he masturbates, and another where a teacher’s innocent embrace gives the narrator an erection.

“Taken as a whole, readers will find the book to be far from sexually appealing,” Pettys wrote. “If kids read it for daring stuff, they won’t find much. … But the book is not criminally “obscene” in the statutory or constitutional sense of the term. “

The book won a major national award and received positive reviews, Pettys wrote, meaning it would meet the state law requirement of having serious literary value.

School librarians and the organizations that represent them speak out on the subject, defending schools that make these books available to students.

Lisa Petrie, library coordinator for Iowa City schools, said books that deal with LGBTQ identity are “very popular” in the neighborhood.

The Iowa City Community School District has not received any formal complaints about currently contested titles in the state or other materials available in school libraries, Petrie said, but educators are aware of these conversations. that take place statewide.

Librarians “purposely” select materials that deal with gender identity, sex, race and other issues of social, emotional and cultural significance, Petrie said.

Librarians review sources to ensure documents meet high quality standards for literary and artistic merit, Petrie said.

“We strive to find the right book for the right student at the right time,” said Petrie. “Questions of race and identity are among the most important issues of the day. Our libraries are safe places where students can ask questions and find answers to their questions from accurate, authentic and authoritative sources.

“We firmly believe that all students have the right to be reflected in the collections of our library. “

The American Library Association led a coalition of groups to speak out on the issue of challenges and removing books from libraries.

“By falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral or worse, these groups are causing the elected and unelected to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law and ignore individual rights to promote government censorship of collections. libraries ”, states the joint statement. noted. “Some of these groups even use intimidation and threats to achieve their ends, targeting the safety and livelihoods of library workers, educators and board members who have dedicated themselves to the service. public, informing our communities and educating our youth. ALA strongly condemns these acts of censorship and intimidation.

The joint declaration, signed by nine national library associations, later declared: “We oppose censorship and any effort to coerce belief, suppress opinion or punish those whose expression is not. not consistent with what is considered orthodox in history, politics or belief. . The unfettered exchange of ideas is essential for the preservation of a free and democratic society.

Advocates said it is important for LGBTQ youth to have access to literature featuring characters and voices they can relate to. Many disputed books provide exactly this resource, the advocates said.

“For kids to see stories that represent their experiences, that give them a way to contextualize their own life, I think that’s extremely important. And we don’t have a lot of those documents, ”said Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy for One Iowa, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group.

Access to this type of material improves the academic outcomes of LGBTQ students, said Becky Smith, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, which advocates for safe learning environments for LGBTQ students.

“The reason this is so concerning is that all of the research really indicates that students have literary or media sources that they can access and that affirm their identity, in which they can see a part of themselves or their identity. life, we know these students do better in school, ”Smith said.

Crow said even calls for books with LGBTQ themes to be removed from school libraries can worry LGBTQ students.

“They characterize (LGBTQ student’s) experiences less than, offensive or not worth discussing,” Crow said. “And that, of course, sends a message to young people, ‘Oh my God, what’s wrong with me now? Why are books about people like me being pulled from the shelves? “

Grace King of The Gazette at Cedar Rapids contributed.