Evans: Libraries should be for all, not just for some

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Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

There’s a big birthday coming up in Iowa in about a month.

This place we call home — these 55,800 square miles of farm fields, wooded land, and clusters of housing and commerce — joined the Union 175 years ago on Dec. 28.

This should be cause for a celebration. But it probably won’t be. We have difficulty agreeing on much of anything these days, it seems — including libraries.

The spotlight was on them last week during a committee meeting in the Johnston School District. The topic was whether two novels for teens, “The Hate U Give” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” should be available in the Johnston High School library for students to read. The school is the third largest in Iowa, with about 1,725 kids.

Parents Mandy and Rodney Gilbert complained the two books are inappropriate, obscene and offensive. The books contain sexually explicit language and material the Gilberts do not believe should be available to students.

State Sen. Jake Chapman, a Republican from nearby Adel, attended the meeting and had similar concerns. “I don’t know why the school thinks that they’re above the law,” he said, “but I intend to do something about it.”

Chapman is the Senate’s president and controls what bills come up for debate by senators. He said he is drafting legislation that would make it a felony for teachers or librarians to give what he believes are obscene materials to students.

The legislation also would include what he called “civil remedies.” He did not elaborate, but people may recall that Texas’ new law restricting abortions contains “remedies” that allow anyone, not just government, to bring a lawsuit to enforce the statute.  

At the heart of the dispute in Johnston — and similar disputes in a handful of other Iowa communities — are books for teens involving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender story themes.

Johnston teachers said the books have been used in English classes since 2017. But they have substituted other books for students whose parents ask for an alternative.

Veronica Lorson Fowler, an official of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the ACLU opposes attempts to block young people from having access to books that are age-appropriate. Books should be judged on their overall artistic value and intellectual merit, she said, and not just on selected passages.

Put another way, a small group of parents should not be able to keep everyone else’s children from having access to a certain book — whether it deals with coming of age as a teen who is gender-conflicted, or whether the book deals with growing up as a Black, Latino or Muslim.

Amanda Vasquez, chair of the Iowa Library Association’s intellectual freedom committee, told The Des Moines Register: “We would hope that everyone would respect everyone else’s right to read or view whatever it is that they like and for individual families to have those conversations with their children. … No one should try to prohibit anyone else from reading materials just because they themselves may not find them appropriate for their own family.”

It is telling that no objections were lodged against the two Johnston High School books until this school year. It is almost an ironclad certainty that banning the books would lead students to find ways to see what they are missing — by reading them at a public library, by passing around copies bought at stores, or by reading them on their phones or computers.

As for the language the Gilberts and Chapman find objectionable: If you were a mouse in the corner where many teens gather out of earshot of adults, you would almost certainly hear words and comments that would fit right in with the language found in many novels for young adults.

Chapman and other critics of some of these books casually throw around terms like “obscene” and “pornographic.” The state’s obscenity law, Chapter 728 of the Iowa Code, contains a very specific definition — material depicting sex acts that, when applying “contemporary community standards” and “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.”

But the Legislature wrote into that law a specific exemption for schools and public libraries. It states, “Nothing in this chapter prohibits the use of appropriate material for educational purposes in any accredited school, or any public library, or in any educational program in which the minor is participating. Nothing in this chapter prohibits the attendance of minors at an exhibition or display of art works or the use of any materials in any public library.”

For a state that was years ahead of many in recognizing the rights of Blacks and same-gender couples, it would be regrettable if we celebrate Iowa’s 175th anniversary by rolling back access to other views in school libraries, even if those are upsetting and unsettling to some people.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former opinion page editor at The Des Moines Register. He can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.