Appeals Court Halts Texas’ Enforcement of Book Rating Law

A federal appeals court, known for its conservative stance, has issued an injunction against the Texas Education Agency’s enforcement of a state law that requires booksellers to rate the explicitness and relevance of sexual references in materials sold to schools.

Booksellers, who filed a lawsuit against the state claiming that House Bill 900 violated their First Amendment rights, were vindicated by this decision. The appellate court upheld the lower court’s ruling, blocking TEA Commissioner Mike Morath from implementing the 2023 law.

Interestingly, this decision comes after the appellate court had previously blocked the lower court’s ruling in November. Judge Don Willett, writing for the 5th Circuit, addressed this reversal by pointing out that it was made by a different panel of judges.

The plaintiffs, which include bookshops in Houston and Austin, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, and the Authors Guild, argue that complying with the law is both logistically impossible and cost-prohibitive.

The law mandates that vendors rate the appropriateness of all books and materials they sell to school libraries based on sexual content. However, the definitions of sexual conduct in the law are somewhat vague and open to interpretation which creates confusion.

“The ratings [HB 900] requires are neither factual nor uncontroversial,” stated the court’s ruling.

Additionally, the law requires booksellers to submit their ratings to the TEA for review. The state can make corrections and then publicly post the ratings online. The appellate court agreed with the vendors’ argument that this rating system infringes on their free speech rights and obligates them to support a particular point of view.

The court also concurred that complying with the law would impose an undue economic burden on the vendors.

Although Wednesday’s decision did not completely strike down the law, one component of HB 900 remains in effect. This component mandates the Texas State Library and Archives Commission to establish new standards for library collections. These rules must prohibit school libraries from acquiring or keeping sexually explicit materials.

Originally, the plaintiffs sued Keven Ellis, chair of the Texas Board of Education, and Martha Wong, chair of the Texas State Library, in addition to Morath. However, the 5th Circuit dismissed the claims against Ellis and Wong, as they do not have authority over the unconstitutional book ratings.

Proponents of HB 900 argue that the law restores parental rights to shield their children from certain themes, preventing exposure to potentially inappropriate material in publicly funded books. Since the passage of this law in Texas, book bans have become more prevalent, according to The Texas Tribune and ProPublica.

Opponents, including librarians, literacy advocates, and other parents, contend that laws like HB 900 often target books and materials that explore topics such as sexuality and race. These opponents argue that such topics are crucial for young people who may not typically find their own experiences reflected in literature.

This article was originally published in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/17/texas-book-rating-lawsuit-5th-circuit/.

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