Freedom to Read advocates are voicing concern over a new bill in the Texas state legislature, that, if passed, would require publishers to create an “age appropriate” rating system for books sold to Texas school libraries. But most worrisome, critics say, the bill as written would not only force publishers to develop a rating system, it would appear to give Texas state officials the power to direct publishers to change ratings that state officials disagree with and to bar schools from doing business with publishers that do not acquiesce. The ratings would also have to be “affixed to the cover” of each book.

The bill is still in the early stages. Filed this week by Republican Tom Oliverson on the opening day of the filing period for the upcoming legislative session, the proposed bill, HB 338, will compete with thousands of other proposed bills for legislative action when the Texas legislature begins work in January, 2023. For context, the Texas Tribune reported that Texas legislators filed more than 800 bills in the opening hours of the filing period. While most of these bills will not advance, Tribune reporters note, the first bills of the session can often “shed light on legislators’ priorities and what battles could be shaping up in Austin next year.”

Early stages or not, Oliverson’s proposed bill has freedom to read advocates bracing for a rough 2023 legislative session in Texas, a state where conservative lawmakers—including newly re-elected governor Greg Abbott—have been among the most aggressive supporters of book bans and educational gag orders.

In 2021, Abbott demanded that the state agencies overseeing education and library funding keep "inappropriate” books out of Texas schools, and went so far as to direct agency officials to open criminal investigations over offending titles. Furthermore, Abbott’s directive followed a headline-grabbing inquiry launched in October 2021 by Texas state representative Matt Krause that singled out some 850 books for scrutiny.

In a statement, officials at PEN America called HB 338 a “dangerous escalation” in the movement to censor books in schools and libraries.

“A ratings system like that proposed in this bill would concentrate unprecedented power in the hands of government officials to dictate the bounds of what all students and families can read, learn, and share–in ways that are deeply undemocratic,” PEN officials state. “[Forcing] a legislatively-mandated rating system on publishers under threat of punishment and subject to government override is a clear effort to intimidate publishers and police the circulation of ideas and information. The mere introduction of this censorious legislation is chilling, putting publishers and educators on notice that the government is closely monitoring them, and gearing up to punish speech with which it disagrees.”

The mere introduction of this censorious legislation is chilling, putting publishers and educators on notice that the government is closely monitoring them and gearing up to punish speech with which it disagrees.

In a statement provided to PW, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom noted that ALA has has long opposed the use of 'ratings' systems to discourage the use of books and information.

“Requiring a publisher to assign content-based ratings to books is an unconstitutional effort to compel speech and impose a prior restraint on the distribution of reading materials that strikes at the heart of the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of the press, freedom of speech and the right of each person and each family to make their own choices about what they want to read or view,” Caldwell-Stone said.


Meanwhile, PEN America this week also called out a recently enacted Missouri law has led to the banning of “nearly 300 books in at least 11 school districts” since it went into effect in August, and issued an open letter signed by more than 20 authors urging school districts to return the books to library shelves.

According to PEN officials, the books were banned in response to SB 775, a recently enacted law that makes providing “explicit sexual material” to students a class A misdemeanor punishable by a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $2000 fine.

“Even amid an avalanche of book bans this fall, the removals in Missouri stand out,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America director of free expression and education programs, in a statement this week. “These districts seemingly sought to purge any potentially offending visual material to avoid running afoul of the new law. In so doing, they have cast aside the rights of students to read and learn, as well as the fundamental mission of public education and school libraries.”

The open letter protesting the bans includes a host of major authors and illustrators, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Roxane Gay, Rupi Kaur, and Maia Kobabe, among others.

The letter calls the bans “a grave threat to the freedom to read,” and urges school officials to reverse them. “Such overzealous book banning is going to do more harm than good,” the letter states. “Book bans limit opportunities for students to see themselves in literature and to build empathy for experiences different from their own.”

In addition to the new law, Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft in October announced a new proposed rule that would require the Missouri State Library (which falls under the purview of the Secretary of State) to “certify” the collection development policies of all public libraries in the state, would prohibit state funds from buying any materials deemed to "appeal to the prurient interests of any minor," and would bar “age-inappropriate materials in any form” from being displayed in areas “predominantly” serving minors.

Librarians and freedom to read advocates have strongly criticized the proposed rule.

"Sec. Ashcroft has proposed a variety of requirements in order to, according to the Secretary, 'bring back local control and parental involvement in determining what children are exposed to,'" reads a statement from the Missouri Association of School Librarians. "By imposing a state-level administrative rule regarding what can and cannot be purchased with certain funds, the Secretary is thereby contradicting the very idea of local control. This measure is restrictive and against the ideals that libraries uphold, including intellectual freedom and access to information. It is not in the best interests of Missourians, our library patrons, and our students."

The Missouri Library Association has also expressed its opposition. "The Missouri Library Association considers Secretary of State Ashcroft’s proposed rule for libraries an infringement on the professional judgment of librarians, and an effort to further stoke division in the communities that libraries serve," the statement reads.

The rule was scheduled to be published this week in the Missouri Register with a 30-day comment period to follow. Comments can be mailed to the Office of the Missouri Secretary of State, P.O. Box 1767, Jefferson City, MO 65102, or submitted by email to