Court Blocks Texas’ Sexual Explicitness Book Rating Law – News
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Court Blocks Texas’ Sexual Explicitness Book Rating Law – News

READER act would have required booksellers to categorize “sexually explicit” books sold to schools

Image via Texas State Library and Archives Commission

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit blocked the state of Texas from enforcing Texas law HB900 (House Bill 900, also known as READER), an act that requires any vendor who wishes to sell books to Texas schools to provide sexual explicitness level ratings, on Wednesday. The court stated that it would likely be found unconstitutional.

Circuit Judge Don Willett based his opinion on arguments from two bookstores. Blue Willow Books stated to the court that it had sold over US$200,000 worth of books to the Katy Independent School District in the past 5-7 years, but the district has paused book buying because of the law. They estimated that determining the ratings would cost between US$200-US$1,000 per book, and providing ratings for the books it has sold to schools could cost between US$4 million-US$500 million. The judges stated that the act was a violation of the First Amendment, freedom of speech, because the booksellers had to provide the ratings or else lose a portion of their business.

The READER act requires the Texas State Library and Archives to create standards for “sexually explicit” and
“sexually relevant” materials, booksellers to categorize books they sell to schools according to those standards and issue a recall for “sexually explicit” materials sold to schools, schools to refrain from purchasing and having “sexually explicit” materials for their libraries, librarians to obtain parental consent for “sexually relevant” books, the Texas Education Agency to oversee ratings, and booksellers who do not comply with the rating system to not sell any books to schools.

Federal Judge Alan D. Albright of Texas declared the READER act unconstitutional in a written opinion filed on September 18. Judge Albright previously made a ruling on August 31 to halt the act, which was scheduled to take effect on September 1. After Texas appealed the injunction, another court issued an administrative stay so the law could go forward.

Albright wrote, “The intent of the law is clearly an attempt by the State of Texas to categorize and restrict books based on the level of sexual content in each book.” As such, the state would determine which books are allowed and accessible in public school libraries. According to him, the issue is whether the state is allowed to delegate the categorization to third parties. He added that Texas “chose not to have anyone employed by the state” to make the evaluation of sexual content, instead imposing the burden on third parties without guidance. He added that “the rating scheme itself has a complicated web of requirements” and that ‘the government was confused and unaware of how the law would actually function in practice, even though the hearing was mere days before it would go into effect.” He cited that there were approximately 40 instances during a hearing on August 18 where “the government did not know how the law would function.”

The judge concluded that this law violated the Free Speech Clause of First Amendment due to the vague wording, and because it compelled booksellers to publish book ratings that they might not agree with. According to Albright:

“READER misses the mark on obscenity with a web of unconstitutionally vague requirements. And the state, in abdicating its responsibility to protect children, forces private individuals and corporations into compliance with an unconstitutional law that violates the First Amendment. Nothing in the injunction granted here prevents the state from using viable and constitutional means to achieve the state’s goals.”

Retailers and free-speech organizations, including the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, had filed a lawsuit asking the court to block enforcement of the READER act. Judge Albright additionally denied a motion to dismiss by the defendants, Texas officials.

Texas legislature passed HB900 on June 13, 2023.

Source: ICv2 (Brigid Alverson)

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