The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocked a controversial Texas law that would require book vendors to rate books for sexual content before selling them to schools.

The conservative court sided with booksellers who argued the law, House Bill 900, violated their freedom of speech and would cause “irreparable” financial harm. The ruling prevents Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath from enforcing the law.

The court did not block a portion of the law that mandates new library collection standards to prohibit schools from purchasing or displaying “sexually explicit” materials.

What you need to know

The plaintiffs—which include bookstores in Austin and Houston, the Association of American Publishers, and more—sued the state in July. They said the law was too broad and gave state officials “unchecked licensing authority to dictate which books are allowed in public schools and which booksellers can conduct business with public schools.”

The law, also known as the “Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources Act,” requires vendors to rate all their books and materials before selling them to schools. All materials must be rated “sexually explicit,” “sexually relevant” or “no rating.”

The court found the ratings to be “neither factual nor uncontroversial.”

“The statute requires vendors to undertake a fact-intensive process of weighing and balancing factors to rate library material,” the court’s ruling said. “This process is highly discretionary and is neither precise nor certain.”

Under the law, book vendors must submit their ratings to the TEA by April 1 and review the ratings annually. The state can correct vendor’s ratings and prohibit schools from buying books from vendors who do not comply with the TEA’s corrections.

The court ruled that the READER Act violates booksellers’ rights to free speech and forces them to either adopt the TEA’s “unconstitutionally compelled ratings” or lose revenue.

More details

One portion of the law will remain in effect. HB 900 requires the Texas State Library and Archives Commission to create new library collection standards that prohibit schools from purchasing or displaying sexually explicit materials.

The Texas State Board of Education adopted the library standards, which are not contingent on ratings from book vendors, in December. The court said these standards “are not at issue.”

Supporters of the law have said it expands parents’ ability to protect their children from inappropriate content in literature and increases transparency. Opponents contend that HB 900 may unfairly target books that discuss race and sexuality.

What they’re saying

Bill author Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, said he was glad the TSLAC standards would continue but was “disappointed” the court blocked the majority of the law.

“Book vendors have an obligation to be aware of the content they are distributing, especially if that content is sexually explicit material into the hands of school children,” Patterson said in a statement. “I call on the office of attorney general to appeal this decision to the United States Supreme Court.”

The plaintiffs said they were grateful for the court’s “historic” decision.

“The court has moved decisively to ensure the constitutionally protected speech of authors, booksellers, publishers and readers, and prevent the state government from unlawfully compelling speech on the part of private citizens,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement. “The court’s decision also shields Texas businesses from the imposition of impossibly onerous conditions, protects the basic constitutional rights of the plaintiffs, and lets Texas parents make decisions for their own children.”