Texas Law HB900: Our Response
On June 13th, 2023, Texas governor Greg Abbot signed into law HB900. This new legislation requires all businesses that provide books to Texas public schools and libraries to rate each and every book sold to these organizations (both past and future) for sexual content.
Per the Texas Tribune: "A book would get a 'sexually relevant' rating if the material describes or portrays sexual activity and is part of the required school curriculum. A book would get a 'sexually explicit' rating 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.' " If a bookseller has provided a book in the past that they have since determined to have a "sexually explicit" rating, they are to issue a recall for that book. The Texas Education Agency will also maintain a list of booksellers that are banned from doing business with Texas schools and libraries; booksellers that knowingly provide "sexually explicit" books, those that incorrectly rate their books, and those that do not recall previously sold books will all be added to this list and must petition for their removal if they wish to sell any books to schools or libraries again.
Needless to say, we have some very strong feelings about this development. We will not be rating our books, which means that we will no longer be selling books to any school or library in Texas (yes, this law does affect us, even up here in Northern Michigan). In fact, we will now have to verify that orders being shipped to Texas are not for use in these institutions. But we will be trying to make it easier for Texas students, with the guidance of their parents and guardians, to access books that aren't available in their school or library systems. Every K-12 student in Texas now has an automatic student membership with us, with all the benefits that entails. Students, to claim your membership benefits, all you need to do is place an order with us (for shipment to Texas) and note what school you attend in the order comments. We'll apply membership pricing to your order, including free shipping and preorder discounts. It's a small act in defense of free speech and access in the face of a statewide mandate like this, but if it helps even a couple students feel supported or provides a way for minority voices to be heard, it's worth it.
There's a lot to unpack with this new legislation, from the way it is likely to disproportionately affect books that portray LGBTQ+ characters and people of color to the impact this legislation will have on small bookstores compared to publishers. The law, which legislators claim was created to "empower parents," can easily become a means of disenfranchising trained educators, circumventing curriculum discussion at the individual school level, and of perpetuating ingrained prejudices against racial and sexual minority groups. Instead of encouraging parents and teachers to discuss the content of books that raise concerns, this law puts the onus of determining whether a book is "sexually explicit" on booksellers. Small businesses like ours simply don't have the time, personnel, or legal expertise to read and rate these books according to this new system. Additionally, there is a financial incentive to rate books harshly—after all, if it's discovered that a bookseller has mis-rated a book, their company can be blacklisted from selling books to any Texas school or library. And if a small local bookstore can't provide these ratings, schools will be forced to use larger companies that can, which effectively cuts small bookstores out of the picture anyway.
We understand that parents have concerns about what kind of content their kids have access to. We talk to parents, teachers, and students themselves on a daily basis when we're recommending books, both for home libraries and classroom collections. We might even support some kind of universal content description system that provides an objective (rather than subjective) overview of a book's content. This is something that would actually be really helpful for avoiding things that people find triggering, like mentions of suicide or child death. But there is a critical difference between noting that a book contains a description of a particular sexual act and labeling that book "sexually explicit": the latter is a value judgment. By limiting ratings to "sexually relevant" and "sexually explicit" and basing those ratings on "current community standards of decency," this legislation is telling children that content in "sexually explicit" books is morally wrong, bad, or taboo. It is bypassing the educational opportunity for them to learn to make those kinds of decisions for themselves with the guidance of parents and educators. It limits the opportunities for access to books that describe both healthy and unhealthy relationships and prevents kids from seeing their realities, both good and bad, reflected in the books they read. It will mean that any students who have read a "sexually explicit" book and seen themselves in the characters described will know that there is a law on the books that marks them out as morally wrong, bad, or taboo.
That's not something we want to be a part of.
This law is only the latest in a wave of legislation and school policies that restrict the books available to young readers. To find out what the status of legislation is in your state and take action, check out the Kids' Right to Read Project, part of the National Coalition Against Censorship. Their work ranges from large-scale book bannings to single-title challenges all over the country and they offer resources for parents, teachers, and community members who want to help preserve young readers' access to books.