(NEW YORK)— Responding to an injunction affirmed today by the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals against a Texas law that would require sexual content ratings for books sold to schools, PEN America said that blocking enforcement of the flawed statute protects booksellers from overzealous, mandated rating systems or the threat of punishment.

“Booksellers are essential in advancing the freedom to read for all. Blocking the implementation of HB 900 will help ensure authors can reach Texas audiences and bookstores can distribute to public schools without government intrusion in their business,” said Kasey Meehan, program director, Freedom to Read at PEN America. “We look forward to the day that it is struck down for good. Until  then, we are relieved that the injunction helps protect the fundamental right to read for students in Texas.”

HB 900’s rating system would require vendors to rate books as “sexually explicit,” “sexually relevant,” or no rating. The law would impose restrictions on sales and access based on the ratings and booksellers are barred from selling books rated “sexually explicit” to public schools; school libraries are required to recall previously acquired books with this rating. Students would require written parental consent to check out books rated “sexually relevant.” These ratings are based on vague and overbroad criteria and will fail to account for context, authorial intent, and differences in age, maturity, and reading levels across the entire K-12 student population across Texas – definitions PEN America previously said were “impossible to interpret and impossible to enforce.”

“The ratings system proposed by HB 900 is absurd – and dangerous,” Meehan said. “The vague definitions and burdensome requirements would wreak havoc on private businesses and public schools alike.”

In November, PEN America filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs. The brief argued that the state’s position that these ratings based on inherently subjective criteria are factual and uncontroversial  “evinces a facile understanding of literature and a failure to acknowledge its value as a recognized First Amendment interest.”

The 5th Circuit rejected Texas’s argument that these ratings constitute government speech, and thus the First Amendment does not apply. State governments and local agencies have turned to the government speech doctrine in an attempt to immunize their censorship of literature from Constitutional scrutiny. In PEN America’s own lawsuit against book removals in Escambia County, the school district invoked the doctrine to claim that they had free reign to remove books – a claim that the district court rejected in its ruling on the district’s motion to dismiss.

“This court’s rejection of this dangerous application of the government speech doctrine is another win for legal battles against book bans across the country,” Meehan continued. “This ruling may provide further support for challenges against educational censorship nationwide.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057