(Texas Tribune) — The Texas House gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill that aims to ban sexually explicit materials from school libraries. But legal experts, librarians and some parents are concerned that the bill’s language is vague and broad enough to ensnare books that are not inappropriate.
Under House Bill 900 — a priority for House Speaker Dade Phelan — sexually explicit books would be taken off shelves, and some books with sexual references would require parental consent. It passed in the House in a 95-53 initial vote Wednesday. The bill still needs to get final approval from the House before it makes its way to the Senate.
If HB 900 passes, book vendors would have to assign ratings to books based on the presence of depictions or references to sex. A book would be considered “sexually relevant” if the material describes or portrays sexual activity and is part of required school curriculum. A book would be considered “sexually explicit” if the material describing or portraying sexual behavior is “patently offensive” and not part of required curriculum. State law defines “patently offensive” as materials that are an affront to “current community standards of decency.”
Books with a “sexually explicit” rating would be removed from library bookshelves. And students who want to check out books with a “sexually relevant” rating would have to get parental consent first.
Book bans have a long history of being implemented in a discriminatory manner, said state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, during debate Wednesday. Titles targeted by book bans tend to center protagonists of color and tackle LGBTQ issues, race and racism, and teen pregnancy, he said.
Reynolds unsuccessfully tried to introduce an amendment that would require the Texas Education Agency to track which books are being removed from public schools. The bill’s author, Republican state Rep. Jared Patterson of Frisco, shut down the amendment, saying this bill was “not a race issue.”
Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa cast the House vote on library books as a dangerous effort from Republicans.
“Texas Republicans seem eager to send our state down a slippery slope where extremists can come together and ban huge catalogs of literature every two years — especially if those books don’t mesh with their ideas of what ‘traditional society’ should look like,” Hinojosa said in a statement.
But 11 Democrats joined Republicans to pass the legislation. In support of the bill, state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, said HB 900 would establish guardrails to keep out books that have “infiltrated” schools, referencing one that she said teaches kids how to go on dating websites.
While lawmakers questioned the bill on the House floor, Texans sat cross-legged on the floor of the Capitol rotunda with books in hand to protest the legislation. Mimicking in-school reading time, the protesters read pictures books and young adult novels that could be targeted under HB 900, such as “Calvin” and “Being Jazz,” which are about transgender youth. Lawmakers this session are also pushing severe restrictions on classroom lessons and school activities about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Legal experts, librarians and some parents have expressed concern and confusion about what books would be targeted if HB 900 becomes law. They worry the absence of certain titles from shelves could restrict the learning and growth of students whose experiences might not be reflected in the books that would remain. They also fear vendors will designate a book as “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant” because it deals with LGBTQ subject matter.
The bill targeting library books is the latest in a battle about what information public schools can teach or provide to kids. In 2021, lawmakers restricted how educators can teach current events and America’s history of racism.
The Senate has already passed its priority school library bill. Senate Bill 13 would let parents receive notices about what their children check out from school libraries, ban “harmful” and indecent materials, and create local councils to ensure “community values are reflected” in the materials available to kids. That bill has already been sent to the House. HB 900 needs a final vote before it goes to the Senate.
It’s not clear if lawmakers plan to try and pass both bills or if they want to combine aspects of each into one piece of legislation.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/04/19/texas-libraries-books-schools-legislature/. The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.