Federal judge bars Texas from enforcing book rating law
A federal judge said Thursday he will stop a new Texas law aimed at keeping sexually explicit materials off of school library shelves on the eve of the law going into effect, according to state attorneys and lawyers for a group who sued over the proposal.
District Judge Alan D. Albright indicated during a hearing that he will grant a temporary injunction sought by a group of book groups and sellers, including two Texas bookstores, who sued the state over House Bill 900 in July, the group’s lawyers said in a statement. Albright will issue a written order in one to two weeks; in the meantime, the state cannot enforce the law, according to the statement.
HB 900, which was approved during this year’s regular legislative session, requires school library vendors to rate all their books and materials for appropriateness before selling them to schools based on the presence of sex depictions or references. It also requires vendors to rank materials previously sold to schools and issue a recall for those that are deemed sexually explicit and are in active use by a school.
The plaintiffs argue that the law violates their constitutional rights by targeting protected speech with its broad and vague language. The lawsuit further alleges HB 900 would force plaintiffs to comply with the government’s views, even if they do not agree with them, and that the law operates as prior restraint, which is government action that prohibits speech or other expression before the speech happens. The vendors say it is impossible for them to comply with the rating system because of the sheer volume of materials they would need to review.
The law also calls for creating state school library standards that prohibit sexually explicit materials, requiring parental consent for students to check out materials classified by vendors as “sexually relevant” and giving the Texas Education Agency authority to review a vendor’s rating. If the TEA disagrees with the vendor’s rating and gives it a different one, the vendor must use the agency’s rating. Vendors who do not will be added to a list of vendors that schools cannot buy library materials from.
During the bill’s legislative hearings, librarians and legal experts shared concerns and worries that its language would ensnare books that are not inappropriate and, to the contrary, may be titles important for students whose lived experiences may not be reflected in other literature.
The proposal, from Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, arrived amid an ongoing debate about what materials are appropriate to be stocked in school and public libraries. Patterson and supporters of such regulations say libraries are infested with inappropriate books that must be vetted and removed.
However, skeptics of that panic and literary advocates counter that the books singled out by politicians often explore sexuality and race, topics that have been swept up in culture-war politics but remain important for youth who may not be comfortable talking about such matters with others.
Despite the concerns, HB 900 sailed through the legislative process before Gov. Greg Abbott signed it in June. It was set to go into effect Friday; however, the law’s language suggests the new requirements won’t have to be fulfilled immediately.
Most, if not all, of the state’s roughly 5.4 million public schoolchildren have already begun the 2024-2025 school year.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs include two bookstores, Austin’s BookPeople and West Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, as well as the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
The Texas Attorney General’s office said Thursday it would move to reverse the injunction and appeal the judge’s decision. The office had not received the judge’s written order or decision by Thursday afternoon, a spokesperson said.
A court representative for Albright did not respond to an inquiry about his comments during Thursday’s hearing, reported by the plaintiffs’ lawyers and on social media by at least one plaintiff.
“We are grateful for the court’s swift action in deciding to enjoin this law, in the process preserving the long-established rights of local communities to set their own standards; protecting the constitutionally protected speech of authors, booksellers, publishers and readers; preventing the state government from unlawfully compelling speech on the part of private citizens; and shielding Texas businesses from the imposition of impossibly onerous conditions,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement after the hearing. “We look forward to reading the court’s full opinion once it is issued.”