Court halts Texas law on book ratings, upholding freedom in school libraries

In a landmark decision, a federal appeals court blocks a Texas law that aimed to impose ratings on library books, citing constitutional violations and safeguarding the right to free expression.

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The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a pivotal decision, has blocked a Texas law that mandated ratings from booksellers for materials dealing with sexual content in school libraries. The court, based in New Orleans, concurred with a lower court’s finding, declaring the law unconstitutional. This ruling prevents the Texas Education Agency from enforcing regulations that could have significantly impacted the availability of diverse literature in school libraries across the state.

This development comes as a significant relief to those advocating for free expression in educational institutions. The law, if implemented, would have compelled booksellers to categorize books based on their sexual content, raising concerns about potential censorship and restricted access to a broad range of literary works in schools.

Passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature, the Texas law sought to impose a rating system on books sold to public schools, focusing particularly on their sexual content. This legislative move sparked fears among educators, librarians, and booksellers, as it could have led to the banning or restriction of classic literary works like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “Maus.”

Set to take effect on September 1, with ratings due by April 1, the law prompted a lawsuit from concerned booksellers last year. The plaintiffs argued that the law’s broad language and restrictive nature posed a significant threat to the freedom of expression and the diversity of thought essential in educational settings.

In its decision, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals underscored the constitutional concerns raised by the law. The court agreed with the state’s interest in shielding children from potentially harmful materials but stressed that this interest does not supersede the constitutional violation posed by the law. Citing federal law, the court noted that public interest does not extend to enforcing regulations that infringe upon constitutional rights.

This ruling aligns with the broader principle of protecting First Amendment rights, particularly in the context of educational resources. The court’s decision reinforces the notion that while states have a role in safeguarding children, this role must be balanced with the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

Responding to the appeals court decision, the plaintiffs, including bookstores and associations representing authors and publishers, hailed the ruling as historic. They emphasized its significance in protecting authors, preserving the role of parents in making decisions for their children, and preventing undue government interference in the realm of literature and free expression.

“This is a good day for bookstores, readers, and free expression,” the plaintiffs collectively stated. They expressed relief and satisfaction that the court recognized the importance of safeguarding these fundamental rights against legislative overreach.

U.S. District Judge Alan Albright, in his lower court decision, found that the READER Act was unconstitutionally vague. He noted the significant variance in grades and ages that booksellers would have to consider under the law, making it impractical and constitutionally unsound. Albright’s decision highlighted the Supreme Court’s rulings on the freedom from government-compelled speech, further undermining the law’s legitimacy.

The district court’s findings played a crucial role in shaping the appeals court’s decision. By emphasizing the vagueness and impracticality of the law, the lower court set the stage for the subsequent ruling that protected the First Amendment rights of booksellers and educational institutions.

The economic impact of the law on booksellers was a key concern in the lawsuit. Plaintiffs argued that the law would impose irreparable economic injuries. For instance, Blue Willow, one of the booksellers, had a longstanding relationship with a school district in Katy, selling books worth $200,000 over several years. However, the district paused all purchases from any seller due to the impending law.

Furthermore, the law would have required booksellers to rate books already sold, imposing significant financial burdens. Blue Willow estimated compliance costs ranging from $200 to $1,000 per book and between $4 million and $500 million to rate books already sold—a staggering amount considering their annual sales of just over $1 million.

Laura Prather, representing the plaintiffs, including Austin’s BookPeople, lauded the appeals court decision as a victory for free speech across Texas. “The book rating system in HB900 is a clearly unconstitutional requirement that would irreparably harm booksellers across the state,” she said, acknowledging the court’s recognition of the importance of blocking the law from taking effect.

This sentiment was echoed across the board by advocates for free expression, who viewed the court’s decision as a bulwark against unconstitutional legislative efforts to control and censor educational content.

The decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel, which included Judges Don Willett, Jacques Wiener, and Dana Douglas, was unanimous. Willett, a Trump appointee, penned the opinion, joined by Wiener and Douglas, appointees of George H.W. Bush and Joe Biden, respectively.

In his opinion, Willett underscored the plaintiffs’ likelihood of success in challenging the law on First Amendment grounds. This agreement among judges from diverse appointment backgrounds underscores the bipartisan recognition of the fundamental constitutional issues at stake in this case.

Despite the appeals court ruling, Texas Rep. Jared Patterson expressed disappointment and urged Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Patterson’s stance reflects ongoing legal and ideological battles over educational content and free expression in Texas.

The case’s return to the district level for full arguments suggests that the fight over this law and its implications for public school libraries is far from over. The possibility of an appeal to the Supreme Court adds another layer of complexity to the ongoing legal struggle.

Texas is not alone in its efforts to impose restrictions on educational content. Across the U.S., similar initiatives, often focusing on topics like sex, gender identity, and race, have gained traction. During the 2022-23 school year, PEN America tracked a significant increase in book bans in public school classrooms and libraries, with most targeted authors being female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals.

These trends reflect a broader national dialogue on censorship and the role of education in shaping societal values and beliefs. The battle over books in Texas schools is part of this larger cultural and political landscape, where the right to free expression and access to diverse perspectives is increasingly contested.

The federal appeals court’s decision to block the Texas law serves as a crucial defense of the right to read and learn in a free and open society. By upholding the constitutional protections of free expression, the court has affirmed the importance of diverse and uncensored access to literature in educational settings.

This ruling stands as a testament to the ongoing struggle to balance the protection of children with the preservation of fundamental freedoms. As the legal battles continue, the importance of safeguarding these rights remains paramount in ensuring a well-rounded and informed citizenry.

“Our kids deserve the freedom to read, and their local schools and libraries are no place for censorious adults to push their religious and political agendas,” stated Seneca Savoie of the Texas Freedom Network.

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Alexandra Jacobo is a dedicated progressive writer, activist, and mother with a deep-rooted passion for social justice and political engagement. Her journey into political activism began in 2011 at Zuccotti Park, where she supported the Occupy movement by distributing blankets to occupiers, marking the start of her earnest commitment to progressive causes. Driven by a desire to educate and inspire, Alexandra focuses her writing on a range of progressive issues, aiming to foster positive change both domestically and internationally. Her work is characterized by a strong commitment to community empowerment and a belief in the power of informed public action. As a mother, Alexandra brings a unique and personal perspective to her activism, understanding the importance of shaping a better world for future generations. Her writing not only highlights the challenges we face but also champions the potential for collective action to create a more equitable and sustainable world.

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