During a brief online status conference on August 31, federal judge Alan D. Albright said he will issue a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of HB 900, Texas's controversial new book rating law. The highly anticipated decision comes after two hearings in the last two weeks and just a day before the law was set to take effect, on September 1.
While a written opinion and order is expected sometime within the next two weeks, Albright told the parties he would be enjoining the law in its entirety, and ordered the state not to enforce any part of the law in the meantime.
In a joint statement, the plaintiffs—two Texas bookstores (Austin’s BookPeople and Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop) together with the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund—praised the decision as a victory for free speech.
“We are grateful for the Court’s swift action in deciding to enjoin this law, in the process preserving the long-established rights of local communities to set their own standards; protecting the constitutionally protected speech of authors, booksellers, publishers and readers; preventing the state government from unlawfully compelling speech on the part of private citizens; and shielding Texas businesses from the imposition of impossibly onerous conditions," the statement reads. "We look forward to reading the court’s full opinion once it is issued.”
A spokesperson for the Texas Attorney General’s office told reporters the state would appeal the judge’s decision.
Signed by Texas governor Greg Abbott on June 12, HB 900 requires book vendors to review and rate books for sexual content under a vaguely articulated standard as a condition of doing business with Texas public schools. Under the law, books rated “sexually explicit” (if the book includes material deemed “patently offensive” by unspecified community standards) would be banned from Texas schools while books rated sexually relevant (books with any representation of sexual conduct) would require students to have written parental permission to access them. Furthermore, the law gives the state the ultimate power to change the rating on any book, and vendors who refuse to rate books or to accept the state's designated rating would be barred from selling to Texas public schools.
In their July 25 complaint, the plaintiffs argue that the law comprises an unconstitutional restraint on the freedom to read and that it imposes an untenable burden on vendors and publishers (points reiterated in amicus briefs from a wide variety of book industry-related organizations, including a brief filed this week by the Educational Book Media Association).
Texas attorneys counter that the plaintiffs lack standing to challenge the law, insisting that the state has the power to regulate those who wish to do business with Texas public schools—essentially asserting that rating books is simply the cost of doing business in Texas.
At the first scheduled hearing on August 18, Albright appeared skeptical of the law. But because the state had filed its motion to dismiss the case on August 16, Albright set a second hearing for August 28. At that hearing, the judge appeared more critical of the plaintiffs' position. But throughout both hearings, Albright's appreciation for books and art (he noted that Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove was his favorite novel and Caravaggio his favorite painter) gave opponents of the law hope that he would ultimately block it, even as the September 1 effective date drew near.
Chris Barton, a children’s book author who lives in Austin and who testified in front of the Texas legislature when the bill was being debated, told PW he was "delighted" with the judge's decision. "This is more along the way I was feeling after the first hearing," he said. "It is a good sign that the first time this law has gotten any kind of scrutiny, it did not do well.”
EveryLibrary executive director John Chrastka also praised the judge's decision. "The Constitutional problems with HB900 were plain to see," Chrastka told PW. "Anytime the state forces the creation of a content rating system, it is impinging the freedom to read. This ruling prevents unnecessary government overreach in Texas and should caution other states against contemplating their own unconstitutional book rating systems."
Officials at the Texas Library Association said they appreciated Albright's timely decision, and "will continue to support Texas school librarians as they work with their administrators to navigate the confusion that has been created by the requirements in the law."
In a release, the ABA also expressed its thanks for the court. “On behalf of our members in Texas and booksellers across the country, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) is grateful for the Court’s decision today," the statement reads. "ABA is committed to supporting the rights of independent bookstores and the rights of readers and we hope that this suit is resolved in favor of both.”
This story has been updated for clarity and to add additional comments.