(New York, NY) — In recent days, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has directed state authorities to develop statewide standards against “pornography” in Texas public schools, and has further directed the Texas Education Agency to launch a criminal investigation into public schools offering “pornography.” PEN America condemns the governor’s actions as a politically-motivated exercise in censorship and intimidation that threatens to ban books and criminalize teachers and librarians doing their job.

On November 8, Gov. Abbott directed the heads of the Texas Education Agency, the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and the Texas State Board of Education to immediately develop statewide standards to prevent “the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools.” As examples of what he considered to contain pornographic material, Gov. Abbott cited Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, which received the American Library Association Alex Award and the Stonewall – Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award; and In the Dream House, by Carmen Maria Machado, a memoir of an abusive same-sex relationship, which has also received multiple literary awards.

On November 10, Gov. Abbott further directed the head of the Texas Education Agency to “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography.” Gov. Abbott went on to ask the agency to refer any instance of “pornography” for criminal prosecution.

“As anti-book banning advocates, we have seen politicians read from this script time and time again, invoking ‘pornography’ as an excuse to ban books that deal with sexual themes, that spotlight LGBTQ+ issues, or that include LGBTQ+ characters. What is less common—because it is so outrageous—is for these politicians to attempt to put librarians and teachers in jail for doing their jobs,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education. “It is painfully obvious that this ‘investigation’ the governor calls for will be used to target teachers and librarians with potential criminal penalties for making diverse literature available to students.

“Anyone who cares about the First Amendment or about children’s education must recognize Gov. Abbott’s effort for what it is: an attempt to criminalize books that make him and the voters he is courting uncomfortable under the guise of protecting children from ‘pornography.’ But what may be good politics for Gov. Abbott is bad policy for the state of Texas. This investigation will politicize Texas’s education system, send a deeply alarming message of exclusion to LGBTQ+ students, and treat librarians and teachers as potential criminals for doing their jobs. Gov. Abbott claims that he is making these moves to protect children, but instead he is disrupting their education for political gain.”

Gov. Abbott is not the only political figure in Texas who has made recent efforts to ban books in the state. On October 25, Texas State Rep. Matt Krause initiated an “inquiry into Texas school district content,” sending a list of 850 titles to school districts and asking if these districts offer such books. Krause’s list of titles predominantly deal with issues of race and sex, and include prize-winning novels as well as books by LGBTQ+ writers. PEN America has declared the investigation as “menacing and wrongheaded—an affront to the basic ideas of public education.”

PEN America has also been involved in fighting book banning efforts in Leander Independent School District, in Texas, where earlier this year the district banned a slate of books and graphic novels from its secondary school curriculum. Author Carmen Maria Machado, whose book In the Dream House was targeted by the ban, wrote: “Those who seek to ban my book and others like it are trying to exploit fear—fear about the realities that books like mine expose, fear about desire and sex and love—and distort it into something ugly, in an attempt to wish away queer experiences.”

Earlier this month, PEN America also released its report Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn and Teach, detailing 54 bills that have been proposed in 24 state legislatures to prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” in classrooms and training halls. In its report, PEN America explains how these bills—upon becoming law—will foreseeably operate as bans against books and curricular materials that deal forthrightly with issues of racism and sexism in American history and society.