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Texas State Board of Education Restricts Access to Explicit Books in Public School Libraries

In a controversial move, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) has approved new rules that prohibit public school libraries from purchasing or displaying books deemed “sexually explicit.” These rules, based on House Bill 900, were passed by the Texas Legislature in May and aim to increase transparency for parents while preventing students from accessing inappropriate materials at school, according to Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, who introduced the bill.

The SBOE approved the standards with a 13-1 vote during its December 13 meeting. Under these rules, schools are prohibited from offering materials classified as “harmful,” “sexually explicit,” or “pervasively vulgar or educationally unsuitable” in libraries, classrooms, or online.

Books cannot be removed solely based on the “ideas contained in the material” or the background of the author and characters, according to the bill. Book vendors must now issue ratings designating materials as “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant” before selling them to school districts.

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission is tasked with adopting these standards by January 1. Subsequently, book vendors have until April 1 to review and rate their products.

The move is part of a broader conservative effort to increase parental involvement in their children’s education. Governor Greg Abbott, who signed HB 900 into law in June, emphasized the need for parents to be informed about the books available in school libraries. Abbott stated, “Some school libraries have books with sexually explicit and vulgar materials. I’m signing a law that gets that trash out of our schools.”

However, the READER Act, as it is commonly known, faced legal challenges from book vendors and associations, arguing that it is overly broad and infringes on protected speech. Critics claim the act grants the government unchecked licensing authority to dictate book content in public schools.

In September, a U.S. district judge temporarily halted the implementation of HB 900, citing its “unconstitutionally vague” nature. The state promptly appealed the ruling, and the case is currently pending before a federal appeals court.

Despite the legal challenges, Rep. Jared Patterson praised the SBOE for approving the standards, stating that the legislation, born out of concerns from parents, has evolved into the first-ever mandatory library collection development standards. Patterson emphasized the role of parents as the “primary decision-makers” in determining the materials their students can access.

In response to the legal action, book vendors expressed concerns that the law could lead to a recall of numerous books in K-12 public schools, additional bans, and the establishment of an unconstitutional statewide book licensing regime.

PEN America, a free speech nonprofit, reported that 12 Texas school districts removed 625 books from their shelves between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023. This figure does not account for individual titles removed, as some districts pulled the same books multiple times.