September 18, 2023
US District Court Grants Preliminary Injunction Barring Implementation of Texas Censorship Law
Decisive Ruling Finds Law Violates First Amendment Rights of Booksellers, Publishers, Authors, and Readers
Today, Judge Alan D. Albright of the US District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division, issued a written order granting a Preliminary Injunction barring the implementation of a vast and burdensome book ratings regime known as the “Reader Act,” ruling “that this law violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”
The law would have required independent bookstores, national chain bookstores, large online book retailers, book publishers and other vendors to review and rate millions of books and other library materials according to sexual content if those books are sold to school libraries, and to do so according to vague labels dictated by the state without any process for judicial review.
The ruling came in response to a suit filed by two Texas bookstores (Austin’s BookPeople, and West 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.
The law (formerly HB 900) had initially been slated to go into effect on September 1, 2023.
Decision Follows Status Meeting and Hearing
The formal written order and constitutional analysis comes after an August 31st status meeting in which Judge Albright issued an oral order enjoining the State from enforcement, as well as a follow up hearing on September 11th.
The following are joint remarks from Valerie Koehler, owner of Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, Charley Rejsek, the CEO of Austin, Texas-based bookstore, BookPeople, Allison K Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association; Maria A. Pallante, President and CEO of the Association of American Publishers; Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild; and Jeff Trexler, the Interim Director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund:
“We thank the court for its clear and decisive ruling and applaud its finding that this law violates the First Amendment, imposes impossibly onerous conditions on booksellers, and ignores the vastly different community standards across local communities. Today is a great day for Texas booksellers, publishers, readers, and communities.”
Excerpts from the Court Ruling
- Texas chose “to impose this extraordinarily difficult and prohibitively expensive burden solely on third parties with totally insufficient guidance. And worse still, no matter how much time and expense the third parties invest in complying, the State (through the Texas Education Agency) retained the power to unilaterally alter any decision made by the third party.”
- “This Court holds that the State of Texas impermissibly seeks to compel an individual or a corporation to create speech that it does not wish to make, and in addition, in which it does not agree with. The question faced by this Court is whether this law violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. For this and other reasons, the Court finds that this law violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.”
- The law fails “to inform the public or any Plaintiff whose community standard it is referencing. It is an open question whether this community standard is based on Austin, Texas, or Onalaska, Texas—or any of the more than 1,200 incorporated municipalities across Texas. The lack of any blueprint for the Plaintiffs to follow creates a blunt reality that under this scheme it is guaranteed that different book distributors and sellers will arrive at different assessments with respect to hundreds if not thousands of books.”
- The law’s “requirements for vendors are so numerous and onerous as to call into question whether the legislature believed any third party could possibly comply.”
- “The Court does not dispute that the state has a strong interest in what children are able to learn and access in schools. And the Court surely agrees that children should be protected from obscene content in the school setting. That said, READER misses the mark on obscenity with a web of unconstitutionally vague requirements. And the state, in abdicating its responsibility to protect children, forces private individuals and corporations into compliance with an unconstitutional law that violates the First Amendment.”
What the Law Would Have Done
The Texas law would have replaced the long-established rights of local communities to set and implement standards for school materials within constitutional boundaries, and forced private businesses to label books where they would prefer to remain silent under burdensome and vague standards. Companies that insufficiently complied would have been subject to censure through a public listing, and Texas schools would have been prohibited from purchasing any books from them in the future.
Read the full decision here.