Another Triumph for Books! Texas Court Blocks Controversial Ratings Law as Unconstitutional

A 2023 Texas law has been struck down as a violation of the First Amendment. Read on for details!

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On Wednesday, a Texas bill requiring booksellers and publishers to add ratings to books sold to school libraries was struck down by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. House Bill 900, known as the “Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources Act,” which would have enforced a rating system of the sexual explicitness and sexual relevance of content, was deemed unconstitutional. According to the courts, the system would be compelled speech. The courts, who sided with the plaintiffs, also noted the harm that Texas’s rating system could do to book vendors.

Indeed, there is also a risk of reputational harm that ratings put on the internet for all to see will be held against vendors by potential buyers in and outside the state.

Texas Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

The appellate court also stated that:

We agree with the State that it has an interest in protecting children from harmful library materials, but ‘neither [the State] nor the public has any interest in enforcing a regulation that violates federal law. Indeed, ‘[i]njunctions protecting First Amendment freedoms are always in the public interest.

Texas Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

The lawsuit, filed by Austin bookseller BookPeople, Houston bookseller Blue Willow Bookshop, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and other vendors and publishers, argued the impossible feat and costly outcome if they were forced to abide by the rating system put forth in the bill. In November 2023, the lower courts ruled against the Texas Education Agency, preventing them from enforcing the law, which leans on vague language — a decision that the appellate courts blocked. In a turn of events, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’s reversal handed book vendors and publishers a surprising win, stating:

The… ratings are ‘purely factual and uncontroversial’ like a nutrition label; they simply tell the buyer what they are receiving rather than pass judgment or express a view on the material’s appropriateness for children. We disagree.

A library with white bookshelves has some empty spaces. There are tables and chairs near a window with blue curtains. At the top is the word "canceled" in red letters.

While Texas courts may have ruled the rating system unconstitutional, they did not rule against the law in its entirety. A component of the law still requires new library collection standards and rules, which still must ban school libraries from the acquisition of sexually explicit materials. For now, vendors and publishers in Texas can breathe a collective sigh of relief that at least part of the law has been blocked. Wednesday night, they gave a joint statement that said:

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. The court’s decision also…protects the basic constitutional rights of the plaintiffs, and lets Texas parents make decisions for their own children without government interference or control. This is a good day for bookstores, readers, and free expression.

Plaintiffs’ statement

As book bans continue to be passed throughout the country, on this matter, Texas book vendors and publishers can, at least, count this small victory.

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