Capitol Notebook: Bill allowing Iowa parents to sue educators over books advances

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HR King
May 29, 2001
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Also: Lawmakers approve a bill that would require Iowa, Iowa State and UNI sports teams to schedule games against each other

DES MOINES — A proposal to enable parents to start legal proceedings against schools or educators who distribute books or materials the parents deem obscene advanced Wednesday at the Iowa Capitol.

During a hearing in the Iowa Senate’s judiciary committee, most Republicans supported and all Democrats opposed Senate Study Bill 2198.

The legislation is a response to some parents and state lawmakers who have found some books in school libraries and other educational materials to be obscene or pornographic. Some of the books contain isolated passages that describe or draw images that show sexual acts, including incest. Complaints generally have revolved around books that feature LGBTQ characters or were written by LGBTQ authors, or involve non-white characters or authors.

Those who have opposed the proposed legislation say the issue should be left to processes already in place for school districts to address parents’ concerns. They also say, as Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, did Wednesday, that some of these books may help students who may be struggling with difficult issues covered in the books.

“Maybe they’ve experienced that and don’t know what they’ve been through, but now they see it in a book and realize that it’s wrong,” Bisignano said. “We think by hiding the bad things in our life from the kids, we’ll get rid of the bad things in our society.”

Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, the committee chairman, said he believes the process is broken because in some cases schools have heard parents’ complaints and kept some of the books in their libraries. He said the bill gives parents another avenue to address their concern.

“We pass a bill but there’s no teeth in it. This bill has teeth in it,” Zaun said. “This bill is about parents. This bill is about giving parents some power to be able to say what is wrong and what they find is inappropriate that’s being taught in the classroom.”

With committee approval by majority Republicans, the bill is now eligible for consideration by the Iowa Senate.

It faces a somewhat uncertain future, as Republican Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, and Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, have both indicated a desire to address the topic by ensuring full transparency in school books and education materials. That aligns with a proposal from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.

A bill that takes that approach, House Study Bill 706, is on the agenda for the House education committee’s meeting Thursday.

RIVALRY GAMES: Legislation requiring Iowa’s regents universities to schedule athletic competitions against each other cleared a House Education subcommittee with objections from the Democratic member that the Legislature has higher priorities.

However, Republicans said in-state rivalry games are popular with fans — taxpayers — who are more likely to attend those competitions than non-conference games.

A spokeswoman for the Board of Regents said the universities try to schedule those competitions because they are popular with fans.

Lobbyist Carolann Jensen told the subcommittee that Iowa State University had two visits from ESPN GameDay in three years because of the game with the University of Iowa. That brought Carson King donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics “and the notoriety we have.”

The universities’ respective leagues play a role in schedules, but they are working to continuing the rivalry games.

Rep. Ras Smith, D-Waterloo, called it “weird ... heavy-handed ... and outside our realm of things we should focus on,” and suggested House File 2039 would be “weird ... code clutter.”

“We do a lot weird things in Iowa Code. This probably isn’t one of the weirdest,” said Rep. Chad Ingels, R-Randalia.

Ingels and Rep. Joel Fry, R-Osceola, signed off on the bill.

EMINENT DOMAIN: Legislation that would have banned the use of eminent domain — the practice of the government claiming private land for private business projects — was shelved. Senate File 2160 did not meet this week’s legislative deadline, making it ineligible for consideration for the remainder of the session.

Three carbon pipelines are being planned that would cross through Iowa.

TRAFFIC CAMERAS: A proposal to ban automated traffic enforcement cameras advanced through the Senate’s judiciary committee, helping it to survive this week’s legislative deadline.

Senate Study Bill 3012 is now eligible for consideration by the full Senate.

“We in this country have a constitution that says that you are innocent until proven guilty, and these cameras go against our constitution,” said Sen. Brad Zaun, R-Urbandale, the committee chairman. “And in so many instances it’s become more about revenue.”

JUDICIAL NOMINATING: A legislative proposal changing the judicial selection process for the Court of Appeals and district courts was approved by the House Judiciary Committee, but not without arguments that Republicans were trying to fix a system that is not broken.

The committee split 15-5 in approving House File 636 that would give the governor more control of the selection process, appointing judicial nominating commission members without regard to political affiliation. Most appointments to state committees, boards and commissions must include Democrats, Republicans and political independents. The bill does maintain requirements that no more than half be of the same gender.

An amendment adopted on a voice vote would increase the number of nominees a judicial nominating commission send to the governor for the Court of Appeals from three to five.

That could mean that all applicants for a seat on the appeals bench would be forwarded to the governor, said Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton. That could limit the panel’s discretion, “but I am not going to die on that hill.”

The current judicial nominating process is working, said Rep. Rick Olson, D-Des Moines. Giving the governor more authority may not improve the quality of the courts.

“Sometimes local folks make better decisions than decisions that are made at the state level,” he said.

BRADY-GIGLIO: A bill addressing the Brady-Giglio list maintained by county attorneys of officers who may have impeached themselves as witnesses and officers who may have violated the pretrial discovery rules was approved by the House Public Safety Committee 14-5 to keep the bill alive despite agreement that it needs improvement.

House Study Bill 701 would establish procedures for placing names on the list of law enforcement officers who committed misconduct that raises questions about their credibility, such as lying, committing a crime, showing racial bias, or excessive force. Defense attorneys use the list to challenge testimony from those officers.

The Legislature approved Brady-Giglio legislation last year, but it sunsets this year unless lawmakers take further action.

Rep. Rick Olson, D-Des Moines, said he and the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jarad Klein, R-Keota, agree the bill needs work, but asked the committee to pass it to meet a Friday deadline to keep it alive for further consideration.

CONFIDENTIAL RECORDS: The House Judiciary Committee approved House File 676 that would allow a legislator to request access to the confidential records of a commission on judicial qualification nominating commission. A legislator who is a party to an action would not be allowed to request records until the action is final and may not be appealed. Also, lawmakers granted access to the records would be prohibited from disclosing the records.

Rep. Mary Wolfe, D-Clinton, agreed it would be helpful to have a way for a legislator with concerns about alleged malfeasance to know whether it is being investigated. But as written, she said, the bill is too broad.