AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas governor signed his name to four bills Monday afternoon that he said fulfilled his promise to empower parents more in their children’s education. One of these new laws will require vendors to rate books they sell to school libraries based on their depictions or references to sex, and that could result in the removal of some titles.
Gov. Greg Abbott said House Bill 900, which he signed alongside one of the authors, will set new standards for Texas school libraries to keep what he called sexually explicit content off shelves.
“Every minute of time spent on vulgar materials is time away from the task of kids learning what they need to learn to advance in our state and our country,” Abbott said.
The law broadly defines “sexually explicit” as material that “describes, depicts, or portrays sexual conduct in a way that is patently offensive.” Ash Hall, who serves as the policy and advocacy strategist on LGBTQIA+ rights for the ACLU of Texas, said they’re waiting to see how that is ultimately applied.
“We’ve seen that used in the past as justification to ban any discussion of LGBTQ+ identities or topics,” Hall said, “so we expect that the same would happen here.”
According to the way the law’s written, companies that sell books to Texas schools will now have to include a rating. Vendors can no longer sell a book they deem “sexually explicit.” If a school already has it, then the law reads the company would have to “issue a recall” and take it back.
The Texas Library Association, a statewide nonprofit, is now working with more than 5,000 librarians across the state to make sure whom they’re doing business with is following the law, and that’s what potentially worries the organization’s executive director, Shirley Robinson, most.
“Book vendors are going to have to put in a little extra effort to be able to come up with these ratings that are very subjective,” Robinson said. “The ratings might vary from one vendor to the other and so you could end up with two different ratings for the exact same book. What this is going to do is put a huge burden on the book vendors. They may make the decision not to sell in the state of Texas. They’re going to have to potentially increase their costs to do business with the state of Texas, and all that to say is going to create a slowdown in the number of books that are getting into the libraries in our schools.”
The law stipulates that another rating for books sold to school libraries is for “sexually relevant material,” which is defined as an item that “describes, depicts, or portrays sexual conduct.” In this case, a student wanting to check out or save a book with this rating could only do so if the school has “written consent from the student’s parent” or guardian.
Hall said they could foresee Texas opening itself to lawsuits depending on the types of books that are either removed from schools or blocked from being sold to libraries.
“I suspect that both vendors, librarians, even students are going to take an interest in litigation around this,” Hall said Monday. “So even if it doesn’t come from us [at the ACLU of Texas], I suspect we’re going to see a number of lawsuits filed from different parties because this really is like a First Amendment violation. It’s going to be deployed in such a way I predict that a lot of students are going to miss out on chances to see representation of themselves in their schools and in their libraries.”
This new law in Texas may also face scrutiny from a new position announced this month by the Biden administration. The U.S. Department of Education is set to appoint a coordinator who will now look into what the White House called the “growing threat that book bans pose for the civil rights of students,” according to a news release sent out last week.
Other ‘parent empowerment’ bills signed
The three other bills Abbott signed Monday included the following:
- House Bill 1605, which overhauls the state instructional materials vetting process at the State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency.
- House Bill 1926, which extends the Supplemental Special Education Services program.
- House Bill 3803, which allows parents and guardians to elect for their student to repeat or retake a course or grade.
The governor previously held events to sign bills into law that dealt with border security initiatives, like installing buoys as a new river barrier, and public safety, which included creating new criminal penalties for catalytic converter thefts. He also added his signature to a bill known as The CROWN Act, which is intended to end the discrimination of hairstyles associated with race in Texas. KXAN learned a ceremonial signing event will happen behind closed doors for this legislation Monday morning.
This weekend Abbott signed another bill that will address one of the top complaints about Texas’ tolling systems. This followed the massive “TxTag Troubles” investigative project launched by KXAN in which frustrated drivers reached out to get their billing issues resolved.