(NEW YORK)—PEN America has filed an amicus brief in the Fifth Circuit in the case of Book People v. Wong, challenging Texas’s HB 900, which requires booksellers to “rate” books sold to public schools for sexual content. The free expression and literary group argues the ratings are unconstitutional.

The brief filed on Friday argues that HB 900, enacted in June, will have a chilling effect on writers’ creative expression and prevent them from reaching their intended audiences. Courts have historically recognized the complexity and multiplicity of literary language and the importance of a holistic approach to understanding art and literature in protecting creative expression. The brief argues that HB 900 “evinces a facile understanding of literature and a failure to acknowledge its value as a recognized First Amendment interest.”

“HB 900’s censorious approach to literature in schools is antithetical to fundamental First Amendment values,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, managing director of PEN America Washington office. “The bill represents a dangerous attempt on the part of the state to intervene in art and literature, and its chilling effect would severely undermine writers’ creative freedom.”

The rating system requires vendors to rate books as “sexually explicit,” “sexually relevant,” or no rating. The law imposes 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 will 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.

The regulatory policies incentivize overrating, preventing authors from reaching readers. Authors of children’s and young adult literature often speak of writing for young audiences with a sense of vocation. Laws like HB 900 that limit their ability to speak to their intended audience may have a chilling effect on writers who are forced to choose between writing about their intended topics and reaching their intended readership.

PEN America has previously spoken out against the passage of HB 900 and advocates against legislation banning books across the country.

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. pen.org

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