Iowa lawmaker wants to make it a felony to distribute ‘obscene’ reading material in schools

“Our schools should be one of the safest environments,” Iowa state Sen. Jake Chapman says.

Iowa state Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, has announced he is having legislation drafted to make it a felony for school employees to distribute “obscene” material to students.

KCCI reported that Urbandale Community School District will review five books at a meeting at 4 p.m. Dec. 13 at its administrative office.

The Des Moines Register reported that most people who spoke at a Johnston Community School District meeting supported keeping the books in the curriculum. Teachers who spoke at the meeting said they provide other book options upon request. The committee unanimously decided to allow the books to remain in the curriculum.

Johnston Community School District’s regulation of instructional materials allows community members to object to instructional materials. The process begins with attempts to address it informally before proceeding to a formal complaint process. The executive director of teaching and learning can ask a Reconsideration Committee to meet. The Reconsideration Committee can decide in a two-third vote to temporarily remove materials in unusual circumstances; or the committee can dismiss the challenge and make its own recommendation to the school board. The school district’s decision can be appealed to the Iowa State Board of Education.

“Our schools should be one of the safest environments,” Chapman said in the Facebook post Nov. 18 announcing the legislation effort. “It’s for that reason I have legislation being drafted to create a new felony offense under Iowa Code 728. There will also be additional mechanisms to force prosecutions or allow civil remedies.”

Under Iowa Code 728.7, the chapter (Iowa Code 728) outlining prohibitions on obscenity does not prohibit the use of “appropriate material for educational purposes” in accredited schools, public libraries, or educational programs in which minors participate.

Chapman has asked news agencies to publish the images in the books and criticized those that don’t. He did not respond to request for further comment to The Center Square after The Center Square declined Chapman’s request that it publish images from the books in question.

Rep. Steve Holt, R-Denison, told The Center Square in a phone interview Wednesday that he has not seen Chapman’s bill and would not want to comment on the legislation for that reason but that existing school procedures should handle the matter.

“Unless of course, schools are going to ignore parents’ concerns,” he said.

Holt said he has seen the pictures from the books and believes sharing the material via social media would not be possible since the social media sites would report it.

“[I] cannot believe anyone would have considered them to be appropriate for a school setting. … I think you can make people feel welcome and included without the use of obscene material,” Holt said.

Matt Pries, an English teacher at Waukee High School, offered in a Facebook post Nov. 21 to meet with Chapman, other teachers and librarians to explain why two of the books, "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas and "The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie, should be available to students. He said he has offered students books like J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," first communicating with parents.

“The anonymous surveys I employed as part of my research showed that, not only did kids love the books, but the books lead them to realize there were books written for, and about, them; thus, they were moved to continue reading. Kids who before had never read an entire novel, were now reading three or four in one month, and then checking out more after this part of our semester concluded.”

The American Library Association’s Banned & Challenged Books website reported that, in 2020, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" was the fifth most challenged book and "The Hate You Give" was 10th. The former was banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references and “allegations of sexual misconduct by the author” and the latter was challenged for profanity and “thought to promote an anti-police message,” the website said.

Other books identified as offensive by Chapman include "Hey Kiddo," "Gender Queer," "Lawn Boy" and "All Boys Aren't Blue."

Note: The Center Square has declined to show the images in question because of copyright concerns.