Another federal lawsuit has been filed against book bans, which, in this case, is a Texas law that restricts students from checking ‘sexually relevant’ books out of their schools’ libraries. It’s the latest pushback against a resurgent culture war in which elected officials in Republican-controlled states have imposed restrictions on school curriculums, library collections, what teachers can say in the classroom about race-related issues, and LGBTQ+ student rights.
A coalition of bookstores, national booksellers, authors and publishers is now suing the state of Texas over a new law that, when it takes effect on Sept. 1, will require them to rate and review the sexual content of “millions of books and other materials” before they can be sold to school libraries. The law, now known as the “The Reader Act,” will also force vendors to go back and review and potentially recall materials previously sold to schools.
“The Texas law replaces the long-established rights of local communities to set and implement standards for school materials within constitutional boundaries and forces private businesses to act as instruments of state censorship on controversial topics, under threat of retaliation,” says a statement by The Association of American Publishers, one of the organizations behind the lawsuit.
When debating the new law, some Texas lawmakers warned A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Of Mice and Men, Ulysses, Jane Eyre, The Canterbury Tales, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the Bible and other classic works of literature could be restricted. “One lawmaker, a former schoolteacher, said the ban would likely prohibit school libraries from offering the quintessential Texas novel, Lonesome Dove,” The Association of American Publishers noted.
Companies that don’t comply will be publicly censured by the state and prohibited from selling books to school districts. The suit counters that the law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments by “regulating speech with impermissibly vague and overbroad terms” and “imposing unconstitutional content-based restrictions.” It is also unconstitutional to allow private entities to regulate speech, the organizations contend.
Specifically, the law says books that describe or portray sexual conduct would have to be rated “sexually relevant,” which would prevent a student from reading or checking those titles out without the consent of a parent or guardian. The “sexually relevant” rating covers “all non-explicit references, in any context, to sexual relations, and therefore could apply broadly to health-related works, religious texts, historical works, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and many other works,” according to the lawsuit.
Books could also receive a more severe “sexually explicit” rating and be deemed “patently offensive”—which Texas law defines as an affront to “current community standards of decency.” These titles would be banned from schools completely and vendors would also have to recall any copies previously sold to schools.
“There is no question that reading in schools should be guided and age-appropriate, but this law does not accomplish that goal,” says Allison K Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. “It is inferior to existing constitutional standards because it robs parents, schools and teachers from across the state of Texas of the right to make decisions for their respective communities and classrooms, instead handing that role to a state entity and private businesses.”
More book ban battles
In May, Florida’s Escambia County School District and its school board were sued for removing LGBTQ-themed books from school libraries earlier this year. Plaintiffs include parents of students, several of the books’ authors, Penguin Random House (the country’s largest publishing firm) and PEN America, a leading free speech organization.
The Escambia County School Board called an emergency meeting in February to order the removal from district libraries of three LGBTQ-themed books: When Aidan Became a Brother, All Boys Aren’t Blue and And Tango Makes Three. The first title is about a transgender boy who becomes a big brother while the second is a memoir about growing up a queer Black man in New Jersey. The last book is about two male penguins who raise a chick.
Prior to voting on the bans, school board member Kevin Adams noted that students could still check the books out of the public library. But dissenting board member Patricia Hightower rejected claims that such books could indoctrinate children or steer them toward an LGBTQ+ lifestyle. “Reading books opens your mind but it doesn’t change who are you or what you are,” Hightower said. “It makes you a more compassionate, caring person.”