Metro Weekly

Iowa Law Could Deem Librarians and Bookstore Owners “Sex Offenders”

Any adult who disseminates "obscene material" -- including LGBTQ books -- to minors could be jailed and forced to register as a sex offender.

A proposed bill in Iowa seeks to prosecute people accused of providing “obscene material” to minors could potentially be weaponized against book lenders throughout the state.

Depending on one’s own biases, and how broadly the law is interpreted by prosecutors, the proposed law might be used to force librarians and bookstore owners to serve prison time and register as sex offenders if they allow minors to access LGBTQ-themed books that have been deemed “obscene.”

The bill amends an existing obscenity law with harsher penalties.

Under the proposed revision, “any person, other than the parent or guardian of the minor, who knowingly disseminates or exhibits obscene material to minor, including the exhibition of scene material so that it can be observed by a minor on or off the premises where it is displayed” will be considered guilty of an “aggravated misdemeanor.”

Previously, the dissemination of so-called “obscene material” was considered a “serious misdemeanor,” punishable by up to a year in prison and a fine of at least $430 but not more than $2,560. But an aggravated misdemeanor is punishable by up to two years in prison, and much larger fine, ranging from $855 to $8,540. 

Under the law, a person convicted of disseminating obscene material is considered to have committed a Tier I Sex Offense, and will be required to register as a sex offender for a period of 10 years.

While the bill appears straightforward, it could potentially have problematic effects — depending on who is doing the deeming of what constitutes “obscene.”

Under Iowa law, “obscene material,” which includes written material, is defined as “any material depicting or describing the genitals, sex acts, masturbation, excretory functions, or sadomasochistic abuse which the average person, taking the material as a whole and applying contemporary community standards with respect to what is suitable material for minors, would find appeals to the prurient interest and is patently offensive; and the material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.”

While the law appears to be targeting some more controversial LGBTQ books that relate to sexual content, such as the much-maligned graphic memoir Gender Queer, or books like FlamerAll Boys Aren’t Blue, and Lawn Boy, technically, under the law’s definition of obscene material, several prominent works, including some literary classics, could be deemed to meet such criteria.

For instance, the Toni Morrison novel Beloved, the Canterbury Tales, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s 1984The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Alice Walker’s much-hailed novel The Color Purple could all be considered to contain “obscene” material. Technically, so could the Bible, which has myriads of graphic sexual content, especially in the Old Testament.

As such, even if a person or a county prosecutor deems that the books’ depictions of or references to sexual acts overly “appeal to the prurient interest” or are not “suitable for minors,” any librarian — whether in a school library or public library — or book store owner who allows those works to be accessed, viewed, checked out, or bought by minors could potentially find themselves on the wrong end of the law.

Even individuals who lend a copy to another person could find themselves in trouble if that person allows minors to access the book in question.

Under Iowa’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds — which has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge — many school districts have removed hundreds of titles from the shelves over fear that the books’ content contains descriptions of sexually explicit acts, the mere existence of LGBTQ characters or LGBTQ-related content.

Recently, The Daily Beast uncovered emails from a school board candidate in West Des Moines, who was part of a group demanding that local school district officials be charged with crimes for allowing two LGBTQ library books, which she had deemed “pornographic,” to remain on the shelves.

Given those examples, it doesn’t take much imagination to envision the possibility that any work referencing or acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people — let alone a work depicting an LGBTQ character, even one who is celibate and not involved in a relationship — could and will be deemed to be “obscene.”

Even the children’s picture book And Tango Makes Three, which is based on the true story of a gay penguin couple who incubated an egg and raised the chick who hatched from it — and contains no sexually explicit passages or descriptions that appeal to the prurient interest — has been banned in school districts throughout the United States. If such a book is deemed “pornography” for the mere depiction of a gay penguin couple, the number of books that could be deemed “obscene” or “unsuitable” for minors is seemingly endless.

“Obscene material includes ‘written material’ and could include literary classics, as well as LGBTQ+ books, as we have seen interpreted by Republican legislators,” transgender rights advocate and journalist Erin Reed noted in a post on X.

As such, under the proposed law, librarians and bookstore owners would basically be expected to either purge their collections of all books that might be deemed obscene or bar all minors from the premises to ensure they cannot access such titles.

Otherwise, under the law, if they are accused of providing access to “obscene” books, they could be prosecuted and labeled “sex offenders,” effectively ruining their lives.


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