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Austin's BookPeople sues Texas over new law restricting school library books

A girl looks at children's books at BookPeople in 2010.
BookPeople says if it can’t sell to schools, it will hurt the Austin bookstore and others like it.

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Bookstores in Austin and Houston are part of a coalition that is challenging a new state law that restricts which books are available in school libraries.

BookPeople and the Blue Willow Bookshop, along with the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild and the Comic Book Defense Fund filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday claiming House Bill 900 violates free speech rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

BookPeople CEO Charley Rejsek said she has been advocating against HB 900 since it was introduced during the state Legislature’s regular session earlier this year.

“The reason why we decided to sign on with this coalition of other bookstores, publishers, and authors now that it’s law, is just because we just do not see a clear path forward in complying with the law as it’s written,” Rejsek said.

The law goes into effect in about a month

BookPeople and the other plaintiffs are asking the court to block HB 900 from taking effect on Sept. 1. The lawsuit was filed against the heads of the Texas Education Agency, the State Board of Education and the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. All three agencies are involved in the rollout of the new regulations.

HB 900 bans “sexually explicit material” in school libraries and requires students to get permission from a parent or guardian to access “sexual relevant material.” State Rep. Jared Patterson, the North Texas Republican who authored the legislation, has described it as an effort to protect kids and create statewide standards for school libraries. But critics of the law have warned it is too broad and that it could ban literary classics as well as restrict students' access to books with LGBTQ+ characters.

HB 900 puts the onus of rating books as “sexually explicit” and “sexually relevant” on book vendors, such as BookPeople which sells to school districts in Central Texas. It gives vendors until next April to give the Texas Education Agency a list of books it has sold to public and charter schools considered to be “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant.” Rejsek said not only are those terms vague, but it’s also not possible for book vendors to review and rate all the books they sell or have sold to districts.

“Basically every single book in every single bookstore, and even the books that aren’t on the shelves at the bookstore that can be special ordered in different languages, in different translations — all of those would fall under this law,” she said. “I don’t see a clear path in being able to read and rate thousands of books in a short period of time, nor moving forward.”

If book vendors do not rate materials, HB 900 prohibits them from selling any books to schools.

TEA given 'unchecked power,' booksellers say

The new law also lets the Texas Education Agency overrule vendors’ ratings. So, for example, if a book vendor does not deem a book to be sexually explicit and TEA does, the vendor must update the rating within 60 days or it will also be banned from selling books to schools.

The plaintiffs' attorneys sharply criticize this provision of the law in the complaint, saying it “grants the government unchecked licensing authority to dictate which books are allowed in public schools and which booksellers can conduct business with public schools.”

Patterson said Tuesday that he had anticipated this type of lawsuit, chalking it up to opposition from the “far left.”

“To those standing against Texas schoolchildren I simply say, bring it with everything you have because I don’t want to hear any excuses when we put the final nail in the coffin of your woke agenda,” Patterson said in a statement.

But Rejsek said it’s not that BookPeople and other sellers do not want to comply with the law.

“It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that we literally cannot comply,” she said. “The workload is not feasible, it is not funded and it is not clear.”

She said if BookPeople can’t sell to schools, it will hurt the local bookstore and others like it. She said, ultimately, it should not be up to book vendors to rate books.

“We are here to serve the needs of the schools and that’s what we do. They request books and we fulfill their orders,” she said. “We should not be dictating to schools what they can and cannot purchase. That is not what booksellers do.”

Becky Fogel is the education reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @beckyfogel.
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