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Appeals Court Upholds Block of TX Law Requiring Ratings for School Library Books

“This is a good day for bookstores, readers, and free expression,” plaintiffs said in a joint statement.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference at the Texas State Capitol on June 8, 2023, in Austin, Texas.

A federal appeals court has affirmed a lower court’s ruling that a Texas law requiring that booksellers give ratings to their books before selling them to school libraries is unconstitutional.

House Bill 900, titled the “Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources Act” (READER), was signed into law in June 2023. During a signing ceremony of the law, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott claimed that the measure would get “trash out of our schools.”

The law has been widely condemned, with critics pointing out that it is extremely vague and likely to result in bans or restrictions on literary classics, including titles like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” The law also likely would have resulted in bans on books depicting LGBTQ characters, preventing many children from accessing stories in which their gender or sexuality is represented.

The law would have required booksellers to rate every book they give to school libraries based on its sexual content. Bookshop owners in Austin and Houston, along with national trade associations representing authors and publishers, successfully sued the state last year, when a federal judge blocked enforcement of the statute pending the final outcome of the court case.

The state of Texas appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Wednesday, a three-judge panel on that court upheld the blocking of the law.

The judges, who preside over one of the most conservative circuit courts in the country, expressed some sympathy for Texas officials in their ruling, but ultimately ruled that the law violated the First Amendment speech rights of booksellers and authors.

“We agree with the State that it has an interest in protecting children from harmful library materials,” the appellate court said in its ruling. “But ‘neither [the State] nor the public has any interest in enforcing a regulation that violates federal law.'”

Laura Prather, an attorney who represented some of the plaintiffs in the case, celebrated the ruling.

“The book rating system in HB900 is a clearly unconstitutional requirement that would irreparably harm booksellers across the state,” Prather said in a statement. “We’re thankful the Fifth Circuit recognized it would require booksellers to speak against their will and the importance of blocking it from taking effect.”

“We are grateful for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decisive action in striking down this unconstitutional law,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement. “With this historic decision the court has moved decisively to ensure the constitutionally protected speech of authors, booksellers, publishers, and readers, and prevent the state government from unlawfully compelling speech on the part of private citizens.”

“This is a good day for bookstores, readers, and free expression,” they added.

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