Victory for Free Speech: Texas Law Requiring Book Ratings for Schools Struck Down

In a landmark decision for free speech and literary freedom, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court’s ruling against Texas’ controversial House Bill 900, known as the “Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources Act” (READER). This law, signed by Governor Greg Abbott in June 2023, would have mandated booksellers to rate books based on their sexual content before distributing them to school libraries. The law faced immediate backlash for its potential to censor classic literature and LGBTQ narratives, sparking a lawsuit from concerned booksellers and trade associations in Austin and Houston.

The law, which Governor Abbott claimed would remove “trash” from schools, quickly became a focal point for criticism. Opponents argued that its vague criteria could lead to the unwarranted banning of renowned titles like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Of Mice and Men,” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Moreover, its implications for LGBTQ literature raised significant concerns about limiting access to inclusive stories for many students.

In a decisive move, the Fifth Circuit Court, renowned for its conservative stance, echoed the lower court’s sentiments, declaring the law in breach of the First Amendment rights of booksellers and authors. While acknowledging Texas’ interest in shielding children from potentially harmful materials, the court underscored that neither the state nor the public benefits from enforcing a law that contradicts federal statutes.

The ruling was met with relief and celebration from the literary community. Laura Prather, representing some of the plaintiffs, hailed the decision as a critical victory for booksellers across Texas, preventing them from being compelled to speak against their will. The plaintiffs jointly praised the Fifth Circuit’s action, emphasizing the ruling’s significance in safeguarding the constitutional rights of authors, booksellers, publishers, and readers against government overreach in compelling private speech.

This triumph in the Fifth Circuit marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing battle for literary freedom and expression. It sends a clear message: attempts to infringe upon the rights of authors and booksellers under the guise of protecting children will not stand unchallenged. As the plaintiffs aptly summed up, this is indeed a triumphant day for bookstores, readers, and the cherished principle of free expression.