On December 29, 2023, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa granted a preliminary injunction in two pending lawsuits, ruling that portions of Iowa Senate File 496 cannot be implemented or enforced while the lawsuits remain pending. The effect of this ruling, and as explained more fully below, is that at the present time certain portions of SF 496 are no longer enforceable.
Senate File 496 was signed into law in May 2023. The law contains numerous provisions affecting school districts across the state. On November 28, 2023, Iowa Safe Schools, along with parents and students from five Iowa school districts filed suit, alleging provisions of SF 496 violate their rights under the United States Constitution and federal law. On November 30, 2023, the publisher Penguin Random House, along with several authors, educators, the Iowa State Education Association, and a student filed suit, alleging certain provisions of SF 496 relating to book bans violate their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution. The named defendants in the lawsuits include Governor Reynolds, the Director of the Iowa Department of Education, the Iowa Department of Education, and the Iowa State Board of Education (collectively, “the State Defendants”) and six Iowa school districts along with their superintendents and boards (collectively, “the School District Defendants”).
The lawsuits primarily target three requirements of SF 496:
(1) The requirement that all school districts establish a K-12 library program that contains only “age-appropriate” materials. “Age-appropriate” as defined in the law cannot include any description or depiction of a sex act (as that term is defined by Iowa criminal law). School districts and employees are subject to graduated penalties for violations of this provision, and enforcement was scheduled to begin January 1, 2024.
Both lawsuits challenge this provision.
(2) The prohibition on school districts from providing “any program, curriculum, test, survey, questionnaire, promotion, or instruction relating to gender identity or sexual orientation” to K-6 students.
Both lawsuits challenge this provision, with the Penguin Random House lawsuit challenging this provision only to the extent it applies to books.
(3) The requirement that school officials report to any student’s parent or guardian if the student requests an accommodation that is intended to affirm the student’s gender identity, including requests to address the student using a name or pronoun that is different from the assigned name or pronoun in the school district’s registration forms or records. Any licensed employee who receives such a request must report it to an administrator. School districts and employees are subject to graduated penalties for violations of this provision.
Only the Iowa Safe Schools lawsuit challenges this provision.
The plaintiffs in both lawsuits filed motions for preliminary injunction, asking the Court to enjoin enforcement of the challenged provisions of SF 496 during the lawsuits. On December 22, 2023, the Court held a three-hour hearing on the plaintiffs’ motions. On December 29, 2023, the Court issued a 46-page written ruling addressing the parties’ arguments and relevant legal issues.
The Court granted the preliminary injunction in part, finding that SF 496 is likely to violate Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights in the following ways:
1. As it relates to book restrictions in school libraries, SF 496 is likely to violate the First Amendment rights of student-plaintiffs because the book restrictions “are based on impermissible ideological, religious, or other grounds amounting to the ‘suppression of ideas’ or imposition of a ‘pall of orthodoxy’ over the classroom.”
2. As it relates to book restrictions in school libraries, SF 496 is likely to violate the First Amendment rights of student-plaintiffs and publisher/author-plaintiffs because it is overbroad.
3. As it relates to book restrictions in school libraries, SF 496 is likely to violate the First Amendment rights of the educator-plaintiffs because it is vague.
4. As it relates to restrictions in grades K-6 on promotion, programs, and instruction relating to gender identity and sexual orientation, SF 496 is likely void for vagueness. The Court described the language in this portion of SF 496 as “staggeringly broad,” because it prohibits instruction relating to any gender identity and any sexual orientation. Therefore, the Court found “any teacher in grade six or below who incorporates gender identity or sexual orientation into the curriculum in any way” has already violated the law.
In its ruling, the Court also noted what it saw as a “severe misunderstanding” by “some of the parties” regarding the grades K-6 restriction. The Court clarified that nothing in SF 496 restricts the ability of teachers to provide programs, promotion, and/or instruction of gender identity and sexual orientation in grades seven and above and stated, “[t]o the extent school districts, teachers, or students have been interpreting the law otherwise, they are simply wrong.”
The Court denied the preliminary injunction with respect to the requirement that a parent or guardian be notified if a student requests an accommodation relating to gender identity. The Court found that no plaintiff in the lawsuit had standing to challenge that provision, and therefore did not address the issue further on the merits. The parental notification portion of SF 496 remains in effect and fully enforceable. School districts must continue to comply with this portion of the law. Other provisions of Senate File 496 which are not being challenged in the lawsuits, such as the requirement to obtain parental consent before requiring a student to take part in certain surveys, also remain in effect and fully enforceable.
Under the Court’s ruling, the following portions of SF 496 are no longer enforceable: “the provisions of Senate file 496 that (i) require the removal of books from school libraries that are not ‘age appropriate’; and (ii) prohibit any ‘program, curriculum, test, survey, questionnaire, promotion, or instruction relating to gender identity or sexual orientation to students in kindergarten through grade six.’”
The preliminary injunction will remain in effect until further Court order.
This client alert is being provided to all of our K-12 school district clients. Please contact us if you have questions regarding the challenged portions of SF 496 and how it may impact your school district.
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