Texas law restricting library books blocked by appeals court

The law, which was scheduled to go into effect in September, requires vendors to rate any books they sell to school districts based on their sexual content and references.

By Becky Fogel, KUTJanuary 18, 2024 10:08 am, , ,

From KUT:

The CEO of BookPeople said she is “ecstatic” the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday blocked a Texas law that sought to restrict which books are available in school libraries.

“I’m so, so happy that they upheld the lower court’s ruling and that they understood and agreed with the unconstitutionality of the law as written,” Charley Rejsek said.

House Bill 900 was set to take effect in September, but the decades-old Austin business and a coalition of other groups filed a lawsuit challenging it.

The legislation bans “sexually explicit” books in school libraries and requires students to get consent from a parent or guardian to check out books deemed “sexually relevant.” The law also requires vendors to rate any books they sell to school districts based on their sexual content and references.

Rejsek said independent booksellers like BookPeople do not have the resources to comply with the law.

“There was just really no clear path forward for us to be able to comply with the law,” she said. “It was written in a way where we would be required to divert resources away from our regular business operations so much so that if we were to have tried to comply, it could have put us out of business.”

BookPeople has sold materials to dozens of Central Texas school districts for years.

“We had to sign onto this lawsuit because I couldn’t imagine a 53-year-old business who is a part of our community not being able to work with public schools in the future,” she said.

Other plaintiffs include Blue Willow Books in Houston, the American Booksellers Association and the Association of American Publishers.

A three judge panel of the 5th Circuit — one of the most conservative federal appeals courts in the country — agreed with a lower court ruling that found the law violated book vendors’ First Amendment rights and would also be a “prohibitively expensive burden.”

“Plaintiffs have an interest in selling books without being coerced to speak the State’s preferred message—the ratings,” Judge Don Willett wrote in Wednesday’s ruling.

State Rep. Jared Patterson, a Republican from Frisco who authored the bill, criticized the ruling.

“I am disappointed by this decision in part, as book vendors have an obligation to be aware of the content they are distributing, especially if that content is sexually explicit into the hands of school children,” he said in a statement.

But he said he was grateful the ruling did not overturn a portion of HB 900 that establishes statewide library standards.

Ultimately, Rejsek said she is proud BookPeople was a part of the lawsuit and was able to provide relief to other book vendors.

“I’m happy we were able to sign onto this lawsuit and this court was able to uphold the lower court’s ruling just for all the kids in Texas so that their access to books in school doesn’t change,” she said.

Patterson has called on the Texas Attorney General’s office to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. But Rejsek said she is hopeful the justices would side with book vendors since a federal judge and a federal appeals court did.

“I do think both of the courts’ opinions clearly state why this is unconstitutional and also the burden placed upon vendors and how unrealistic it is,” she said.

Rejsek said she planned to celebrate this legal win.

“I need time to let it sink,” she said, “but of course we will be celebrating, definitely.”

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