US appeals court upholds injunction against Texas law censoring ‘sexually explicit’ school books News
US appeals court upholds injunction against Texas law censoring ‘sexually explicit’ school books

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled on Wednesday that Texas legislation aimed at restricting or banning “sexually explicit” books in public school libraries likely violates the Constitution, affirming a lower court’s injunction against it.

The law under scrutiny, known as the Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources (READER) Act, compels vendors working with Texas public schools to classify library materials by sexual content and label those deemed “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant.” It was signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott and was set to take effect on September 1, 2023.

However, immediate legal pushback ensued. In July 2023, a coalition of Texas bookstores, national booksellers, authors and publishers filed a legal challenge in a Texas district court. They argued that “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.” In addition, they also expressed concerns that this could lead to the banning of time-honored works, including Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Ulysses, Jane Eyre, and even the Bible.

Subsequently, the district court granted a preliminary injunction in September 2023, barring the implementation of the READER Act, ruling that “this law violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”

Affirming the district court’s earlier ruling, Judge Don Willett of the appeals court emphasized the plaintiffs’ fundamental interest in “selling books without being coerced to speak the State’s preferred message—the ratings.” Willett clarified that the rating system prescribed by the Act is a form of speech by the vendors, not the government, thereby rendering the government-speech doctrine inapplicable. Disputing the state’s claim, Willett stated he was “unpersuaded” by the argument that the READER Act “does not implicate plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights at all.”

Representatives from the plaintiffs’ side welcomed the judgment with a sense of triumph and relief: “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. This is a good day for bookstores, readers, and free expression.”