various banned books

Copies of banned books from various states and school systems from around the county are seen during a press conference by U.S. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) at the U.S. Capitol on March 24, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

'Huge Win': Appeals Court Upholds Ruling Against Texas Book Ban

"With this historic decision the court has moved decisively to ensure the constitutionally protected speech of authors, booksellers, publishers, and readers," said plaintiffs.

Texas bookstores, national trade associations, and other critics of book bans celebrated on Wednesday after a panel from an ultraconservative U.S. appeals court affirmed a decision to temporarily block part of a new state law intended to restrict what's allowed in public school libraries.

House Bill 900, or the Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources (READER) Act, was signed last June by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. This case focuses on the section of the law requiring book vendors that sell to schools to submit ratings about sexual content to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and provide annual updates.

The contested law requires booksellers to label all material as "sexually explicit," "sexually relevant," or "no rating." Sexually explicit books must be removed from school library shelves and cannot be sold to districts, while sexually relevant material cannot be checked out without parental consent. The TEA can make changes to vendors' ratings.

"Our kids deserve the freedom to read, and their local schools and libraries are no place for censorious adults to push their religious and political agendas."

A pair of bookstores—Houston's Blue Willow and BookPeople in Austin—joined with the Association of American Publishers, American Booksellers Association, Authors Guild, and Comic Book Legal Defense Fund to challenge the law, arguing that it violates free speech rights and would subject plaintiffs to "irreparable personal and economic injury."

Judge Alan Albright of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, an appointee of GOP former President Donald Trump, temporarily blocked the book-rating policy in September. The New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel unanimously agreed in a Wednesday opinion penned by Trump-appointed Judge Don Willett.

"The question presented is narrow: Are plaintiffs likely to succeed on their claims that READER violates their First Amendment rights? Controlling precedent suggests the answer is yes," wrote Willett, joined by Judges Jacques Wiener and Dana Douglas, appointees of former President George H.W. Bush and President Joe Biden, respectively.

While welcoming that the opinion does not apply to newly adopted standards for school library collection development, Texas Rep. Jared Patterson (R-106), who authored H.B. 900, expressed disappointment with the decision and urged Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Unless Paxton appeals to the high court, the case will return to the district level for full arguments. While there is still a fight ahead, plaintiffs in the case and other critics of the law still celebrated on Wednesday.

"We are grateful for the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals' decisive action in striking down this unconstitutional law," the plaintiffs said in joint a statement. "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 shields Texas businesses from the imposition of impossibly onerous conditions, protects the basic constitutional rights of the plaintiffs, and lets Texas parents make decisions for their own children without government interference or control," they added. "This is a good day for bookstores, readers, and free expression."

As the Austin-American Statesman reported:

The decision was great news for Charley Rejsek, CEO of BookPeople.

"They recognized that this law as it's written would force us to divert time and effort away from our regular business," Rejsek said. "This was not good for any business."

Rejsek added that rating books by the April 1 deadline "was completely impossible to do."

Texas Republicans are among GOP policymakers across the country who have embraced right-wing efforts to ban books at the state and local levels in recent years, initiatives that have often focused on content related to sex, gender identity, and race.

During the 2022-23 school year, PEN America tracked 3,362 instances of book bans in U.S. public school classrooms and libraries cutting off students from 1,557 unique titles. The group noted that this represented a significant increase from figures the previous year and targeted authors were "most frequently female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals."

Texas Freedom Network organizing director Seneca Savoie said in a statement Wednesday that "the courts should exist to protect and defend the rights of everyone in our communities, including our children. We applaud the 5th Circuit for upholding Judge Albright's initial ruling, rather than aiding our state's leaders in their endless culture wars and attacks on LGBTQIA+ Texans and our basic freedoms."

"Our kids deserve the freedom to read, and their local schools and libraries are no place for censorious adults to push their religious and political agendas," Savoie added. "While we were deeply disheartened that the 5th Circuit previously allowed this unconstitutional law to go into effect knowing that it violates the rights of Texas kids and their families, justice has finally been served."

As Willett noted in the Wednesday opinion, previously, "a different panel of this court granted the administrative stay."

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