Federal lawsuit seeks to block Texas book ban over sexual content ratings

Jul 25, 2023, 3:49 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A group of book sellers and publishers filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday seeking to block a new Texas book ratings law they say could ban such classics “Romeo and Juliet” and “Of Mice and Men” from state public school classrooms and libraries over sexual content.

The law is set to take effect Sept. 1. It would require stores to evaluate and rate books they sell or have sold to schools in the past for such content. Vendors who don’t comply would be barred from doing business with schools.

The lawsuit argues the law is unconstitutionally vague, a violation of free speech rights and an undue burden on booksellers. It seeks to block the law before it takes effect.

The measure was signed into law by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, one of several moves around the country in conservative states to ban or regulate reading material. A federal judge in Arkansas held a hearing Tuesday in a lawsuit seeking to block a law in that state that would subject librarians and booksellers to criminal charges if they provide “harmful” materials to minors.

When he signed the Texas bill into law, Abbott praised the measure as one that “gets that trash out of our schools.”

Plaintiffs in the Texas case include bookstores BookPeople in Austin and Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Those groups say the law places too heavy a burden on book sellers to rate thousands upon thousands of titles sold in the past and new ones published every year.

“Booksellers should not be put in the position of broadly determining what best serves all Texan communities,” said Charley Rejsek, chief executive officer of BookPeople. “Each community is individual and has different needs. Setting local guidelines is not the government’s job either. It is the local librarian’s and teacher’s job.

Under the Texas law, “sexually relevant” material that describes or portrays sex but is part of the required school curriculum could be checked out with a parent’s permission. A “sexually relevant” rating could cover any sexual relations, extending to health books, historical works, encyclopedias, dictionaries and religious texts, the lawsuit said.

A book would be rated “sexually explicit” if the material is deemed offensive and not part of the required curriculum. Those books would be removed from school bookshelves.

Critics of the Texas bill predicted when it was signed into law that the new standards would mostly likely be used to target materials dealing with LGBTQ+ subject matter.

“We all want our kids to be accepted, embraced, and able to see themselves and their families in public school curriculums and books,” said Val Benavidez, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network.

State officials would review vendors’ ratings and can request a change if they consider it incorrect. School districts and charter schools would be banned from contracting with book sellers who refuse to comply.

State Rep. Jared Patterson, one of the Republican authors of the bill, said he’s been expecting the lawsuit but believes the law will be upheld in court.

“I fully recognize the far left will do anything to maintain their ability to sexualize our children,” Patterson said.

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Federal lawsuit seeks to block Texas book ban over sexual content ratings