Court Demolishes Texas Book “Rating” Law

In the 1980s, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), led by Tipper Gore and several other wives of Washington insiders,[1] sought to compel record labels to place stickers on albums warning consumers that the songs within contained “explicit lyrics.” Songwriters, including Frank Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snider testified in Senate hearings to oppose the label initiative on First Amendment grounds, but in the end, the RIAA agreed to voluntary use of the labels. Predictably, the result was a lot of ridicule of the now defunct PMRC, and the warning labels mostly served to make the albums more attractive to listeners.

Today’s self-appointed defenders of children against “dangerous” cultural material are more aggressive and mean-spirited than the PMRC and, it appears, more incompetent. Both the tenor and the incompetence were recently highlighted in a 59-page opinion handed down by the District Court for the Western District of Texas, eviscerating a law, unironically called READER,[2] that would have required book vendors to engage in a complexly incoherent rating scheme.

The complaint, filed by Book People, Blue Willow Book Shop, American Booksellers Association, Association of American Publishers, Authors Guild, and Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, alleged that, if enforced, the Texas law would violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Plaintiffs won a summary judgment on all questions of law, and the state is enjoined from enforcing READER as of the September 18 decision. In sum, Judge Allan D. Albright, a Trump appointee, stated, “READER’s requirements for vendors are so numerous and onerous as to call into question whether the legislature believed any third party could possibly comply.”

That is a sober and sobering assessment of the provisions, which appear to have been designed not to reasonably assess books for age appropriateness in school settings, but to ban the sale of certain books by erecting a thicket of compliance too dense and jagged to navigate. Either that, or the law was pure theater and never meant to be enforced because it is so unwieldy. Judge Albright’s opinion is rich with pull-quotes criticizing a law that would have burdened vendors with extraordinary expense (in the millions of dollars) to analyze their catalogs according to undefined terms and methodologies…

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.

Plus, the inevitably broad range of interpretations and applications of READER would be further exacerbated by the authority of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to overrule a vendor’s rating without any clear guidance or process for appeal…

There is precious little if any language in the statute to ensure that any decision made by the TEA with respect to the rating of any book will be any more ‘accurate’ (whatever that means) allowing for the enormous possibility if not probability that it will be entirely arbitrary and capricious (at best). In other words, vendors must decide between either accepting the state administrative agency substituted speech as their own or being effectively blacklisted.

Specifically, if READER were to be enforced, book vendors would have been required to rate both their current catalogs and “books in active use” according to new state standards for “sexually explicit” and “sexually relevant” material. Given the current climate flush with politicians who routinely conflate sexual identity with sexual conduct, it takes little imagination to guess at the Texas legislature’s intent with a vague category called “sexually relevant.”

For instance, how might a vendor be expected to rate my friend J. J. Austrian’s book about two earthworms getting married when there is no sex in the story at all? Although Worm Loves Worm may be read as allegorical support for same-sex marriage, does that subjective reading make the book “sexually relevant” in some administrator’s mind? J. J. said during our podcast interview that most kids don’t even pick up on a “gay marriage” metaphor—earthworms are hermaphrodites after all—which suggests that adults who have banned the book are likely poor readers of both the story and the intended audience. Now, imagine being a vendor and trying to rate hundreds or thousands of titles in context to the “community standards” of all the disparate communities across the State of Texas. “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 opinion states.

There are too many moving parts in this judgment to discuss in one post, but I think the bottom line is that laws like READER aren’t about protecting children, or even about notifying parents about content, as the PMRC intended. While any state has a right and authority to erect a system for vetting materials purchased by its schools, sloppy, overbroad, Catch-22 laws like READER, especially in the current climate, are arguably about little more than hating gay and trans people.

I would challenge anyone to find young children’s literature that contains “sexually explicit” material, as defined by law[3] or common sense, let alone find the mythical Anais Nin picture book in a school library. On the other hand, if “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant” are terms that Texas lawmakers intended to encompass stories in which a character has two dads, or stories about young people struggling with gender identity, those terms are as illiterate as they are constitutionally unworkable.

For as long as I’ve been politically conscious, “conservative” Americans have claimed to oppose the nanny state and to value individual effort. So, maybe parents who don’t want their children reading certain books can stop asking the state to do their parenting for them, read the damn books themselves, and make the individual decisions they deem necessary. Because there is a world of difference between a personal choice to restrict access to a book for one’s own child and demanding that a book disappear from the shelves for all children. Fortunately, the latter can rarely be achieved without violating the Constitution.

[1] Also Susan Baker, Pam Howar, and Sally Nevius.

[2] Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources Act

[3] “The Miller test [for sexually explicit material] requires the following elements: ‘(a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards’ would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.’”

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David Newhoff
David is an author, communications professional, and copyright advocate. After more than 20 years providing creative services and consulting in corporate communications, he shifted his attention to law and policy, beginning with advocacy of copyright and the value of creative professionals to America’s economy, core principles, and culture.

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