Opinion: With Iowa book ban in schools, do not obey in advance

If there’s one thing Americans can agree on, it’s disagreeing. That is, we don’t like people telling us that we can’t disagree with them. We also recognize that stifling dissent is an un-American step towards authoritarianism.

You’ll find anti-authoritarian, pro-speech advice throughout the political spectrum, from Jennifer Rubin’s anti-Republican columns to Yeonmi Park’s anti-leftist book. One book, however, stands out for its simple, nonpartisan rules and lessons for cultivating and keeping a healthy democracy.

That book is "On Tyranny" by history professor Timothy Snyder. He studies 20th-century totalitarian governments, from fascist Italy to communist Russia. His book contains advice for resisting all stripes of authoritarianism.

Lesson one: “Do not obey in advance.” Specifically, don’t do what you think a government will want you to do later. Do only what it is requiring you to do now. By obeying in advance, we tell a government what rights we’ll tolerate it violating.

Urbandale Community School District officials are obeying in advance.

This year, Iowa Republicans passed Senate File 496. The law prohibits instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity before seventh grade and bans materials containing “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act as defined in section 702.17” from K-12 libraries. It goes into effect in January.

Last week, Annie’s Foundation obtained a list of books that Urbandale was banning from classrooms and libraries. The list contained almost 400 books. Rather than following the law as written, Urbandale made a list of books it believed Iowa’s Republican politicians might have wanted to ban.

Following major backlash, Urbandale announced that it will await guidance from the state Department of Education on instruction about gender identity/sexual orientation and pared down the list to 65 books it believes violate the “sex acts” portion of the law.

Urbandale is still wrong.

For one thing, the ban list appears to be composed of frequently-challenged books without considering the merits of those challenges. We haven’t read all of these books, but we have read some. Some do contain descriptions of sex acts. But several contain only characters having discussions about sex, which the law does not appear to prohibit. At least one, John Knowles’ "A Separate Peace," does not contain any descriptions of sex acts, discussions about sex, or even kissing. This calls into question how many of the books actually run afoul of the law.

Further, the list misses materials that obviously do contain descriptions of sex acts. The Iowa Code describes “sex acts” in defining what they are. So does the dictionary. The ban list does not include either the Iowa Code or any dictionary. We doubt the Iowa Legislature meant to ban the dictionary, but it appears it did just that.

We sympathize with Iowa’s school districts. The state has provided no guidance about how to handle this ill-considered law. It is impossible to read every book in every library, either before January or at all. The consequences of a mistake are draconian: for only two books overlooked, teachers and superintendents could lose their licenses. But rushing to throw books on the fire is still the wrong response.

When communities allow state lawmakers to discard local teachers’ and teacher-librarians’ judgments about what is appropriate for their children, they show the state that it can violate the right to local decision-making. When school districts remove commonly challenged books just because they are commonly challenged, they teach the state that it can violate the First Amendment and ban books without writing laws that actually apply to their contents.

This book ban law is an un-American attempt to stifle disagreement by putting two books and the whims of political appointees between any teacher and unemployment. Unless we want to continue to see disagreement systematically stifled, local control eroded, and schools degraded, we must support our schools by demanding state guidance before removing any books. Especially dictionaries.

Kelcey Patrick-Ferree and Shannon Patrick live in Iowa City. And biannual time changes must be abolished.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Opinion: With Iowa book ban in schools, do not obey in advance