Academic Freedom

Court Upholds Block on Texas Law Requiring Sexual Content Ratings For School Books

A Little Free Library contains banned books in Houston
A Little Free Library, which was designed to look like a prison, invites residents to take books that the library says have been challenged by schools across the state of Texas, in Houston, Texas, May 3, 2023. (Reuters/Callaghan O’Hare)

By The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An order blocking the enforcement of a Texas law requiring vendors to evaluate and rate the sexual content of books they sell, or have sold, to schools has been upheld by a federal appeals court.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said opponents of the law are likely to win their legal challenge of the law, which was aimed at keeping material deemed “sexually explicit” off school library shelves.

Backers of the law, signed last year by Gov. Greg Abbott, have said it is designed to protect children from inappropriate sexual material. The law’s opponents said it could result in bans on literary classics such as “Romeo and Juliet” and “Of Mice and Men” in schools.

Opponents also said the law places too heavy a burden on book sellers to rate thousands of titles already sold and new ones published every year.

The law requires vendors to give all library material a rating of “sexually explicit,” “sexually relevant” or “no rating.”

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.

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit sided with book sellers who said the law violated their First Amendment rights against compelled speech. The panel rejected state arguments that the law merely requires factual information, like a nutritional label on food items.

“The statute requires vendors to undertake contextual analyses, weighing and balancing many factors to determine a rating for each book,” Judge Don Willet wrote for the panel. “Balancing a myriad of factors that depend on community standards is anything but the mere disclosure of factual information.”

Wednesday’s ruling upheld a lower court injunction blocking the enforcement of the law while the challenge progresses. The panel consisted of Willet, nominated to the court by former President Donald Trump; Judge Jacques Wiener, nominated by former president George H.W. Bush; and Judge Dana Douglas, a nominee of President Joe Biden.