This Wednesday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a decision by a lower court to temporarily block the implementation of part of House Bill 900 by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco), a bill intended to ban certain materials from the shelves of public school libraries.
This decision by the 5th Circuit, considered by many as the most conservative of the 11 appellate court districts, will temporarily block the full implementation of HB 900 before a judge evaluates the constitutionality of the law at a formal hearing. While this ruling is only a temporary block, the court explicitly stated within the ruling that the law likely will be found unconstitutional based on “controlling precedent.”
As signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott this summer, HB 900 would require private book vendors, not school librarians or elected officials, to assign ratings to reading materials. These ratings would be based upon criteria created by the Texas State Library and Archive Commission (TSLAC) and approved by the State Board of Education (SBOE) at its meeting in December.
While the bill text states that it intends to ban “sexually explicit material,” opponents argue that the overly broad language will lead to a general chilling effect, which will disproportionately remove LGBTQ+ perspectives and perspectives of people of color from library shelves. This has already been the case as other book bans have been carried out locally.
This ruling is the result of a lawsuit filed in July by several Texas booksellers, including Austin’s BookPeople and Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, and by several booksellers’ associations. As previously reported in the Hotline, these plaintiffs allege that HB 900 infringes upon their freedom of speech and is overburdensome to small businesses. This September, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs arguing that HB 900 was “vague,” and that vagueness would lead to an “arbitrary and capricious” rating system.
Importantly, this ruling does not block the entirety of HB 900. The ruling only blocks the law as it applies to book vendors, which means that TSLAC and the Texas Education Agency may continue to enact their standards for reading materials. Because book vendors cannot be compelled to rate their materials based on these standards, it is unclear how the law will be implemented.
This ruling marks a significant victory for the students, parents, educators, and organizations, including Texas AFT, who fought against this bill as it made its way through the legislative process.
In response to the decision, Rep. Patterson, the author of the bill, released a statement expressing his disappointment at the decision.