[May 30 update: The 88th Texas Legislature ended yesterday. Senate Bill 13 never made it through the House of Representatives, but House Bill 900 passed the Senate and awaits signing by Gov. Abbott.]
As someone who has spent time inside literally hundreds of school libraries in Texas and had the opportunity to talk with at least as many Texas school librarians about their work, I deeply value the professionalism of Texas school librarians as a whole. And I believe in their ability to meet the needs of their communities without interference from Texas state senators and state representatives.
There are a couple of pieces of legislation — House Bill 900 (HB 900) and Senate Bill 13 (SB 13) — making their way through the Texas Capitol during the current legislative session that would significantly restrict the way school libraries operate in Texas. I believe this legislation and the process that created it are profoundly disrespectful of that same professionalism and will harm those librarians’ ability to meet the needs of their communities.
For those not in the know but who want to learn how Texas students’ access to books will be affected, I’ve pulled together a few sources of information about HB 900 and SB 13 and will update this post as I come across more articles from reputable sources.
(You can also read and watch the testimony about HB 900 that I gave on May 11, 2023, to the Texas Senate Education Committee.)
“Librarians, Publishers, Bookstores Join Lawsuit Over Arkansas Library ‘Obscenity’ Law,” Publishers Weekly, May 26, 2023
Some 17 plaintiffs—including the ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation, the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, and the Authors Guild—will file a federal lawsuit over a recently passed law in Arkansas, Act 372 of 2023 (also known as SB 81), which exposes librarians to criminal liability for making allegedly “obscene” books available to minors. …
Also this week, lawmakers in Texas passed a bill that could also wind up in the courts. House Bill 900, which now heads to governor Greg Abbott’s desk, would regulate so-called “sexually explicit” books in school libraries and would require publishers and vendors to assign ratings based on sexual content. “Books with a ‘sexually explicit’ rating would be removed from library bookshelves,” reports the Texas Tribune. “And students who want to check out books with a ‘sexually relevant’ rating would have to get parental permission first.”
“When Do We Move From Advocacy to Preparation? Book Censorship News,” Book Riot, May 26, 2023
With the final vote on Texas’s HB 900 … how do we move the needle from fighting against its passage to proactively preparing for what it will do to school bookshelves? HB 900 requires books earning the explicit content to be barred from entering public schools and those deemed relevant may require parental permission to access. The bill is purposefully worded to make determining the appropriate rating nearly impossible, putting the onus of disagreement between vendor and any adult who picks up the book onto the vendor; in other words, it is fertile ground for rising lawsuits pitting “community standards” and “parental rights” activists against vendors.
“ABA Meetings Highlight Membership Growth, Strategic Plans,” Publishers Weekly, May 26, 2023
On the subject of book banning, [American Booksellers Association CEO Allison] Hill promised that the ABA will make “an announcement next week about an important next step to protect people’s right to read.” …
Many booksellers asked for guidance in dealing with book bans. Elizabeth Jordan of Nowhere Bookshop in San Antonio pointed to Texas’s HB 900, which passed the legislature on May 23 and is expected to soon be signed by Governor Abbott. HB 900 “requires that book vendors rate and review books sold to public school libraries for sexual explicitness,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t just affect us, it affects Scholastic, Barnes & Noble—I hope every book vendor in Texas will keep that in mind.”
Referring to petitions against HB 900, Hill observed, “Thousands of people said, ‘This is not okay with us,’ and representatives said, ‘We don’t care.’” Seconded by David Grogan of American Booksellers for Free Expression, Hill said ABA planned a hire “to assist with strategy” and reminded the assembly to watch for next week’s announcement.
“Bill targeting sexually explicit books in school libraries on its way to Gov. Abbott,” KTXS, May 26, 2023
Imelda Mejia the Director of Communications at the Texas Freedom Network believes the bill could limit students access to education.
“Books about sexual orientation and gender identity for example help them with expression, respect for others, and it helps our students learn more about their friends and others who might be different from them,” Mejia said. “To limit what our students have access to will severely harm them and put them in a bubble.”
Reverend Scottie Shelton [of Exodus Metropolitan Community Church] believes removing books considered to be sexual from school libraries will send the wrong message to students who may be trying to learn more about themselves.
“Any time we start going down the road of banning books it’s a slippery slope,” Shelton said. “Anytime you start any kind of book banning of a marginalized community in particular, especially when you start calling a particular sexual orientation sexualizing or dangerous you actually negate an entire group of people.”
“Conservatives Have Turned to a Ratings System to Implement Book Ban,” INTO, May 24, 2023
On Tuesday night, Texas lawmakers approved House Bill 900 which, if signed by the governor, would require book vendors to assign ratings to books that have depictions or references to sex. With house approval already, the next step is to hit the desk of Texas Governor Greg Abbott to either be vetoed or turned into a law.
“House Bill 900 is simply another tool that we as a state can use to do all that we can do in our communities and in our schools to address harmful sexually explicit material,” said State Senator Angela Paxton, on the Senate floor Tuesday night.
If HB 900 is turned into law, not only would book vendors have to assign ratings to their books, if there’s sexual content of any sort in them, but the vagueness of the bill could effectively prohibit certain books from shelves. Books can receive a “sexually relevant” rating, which means that the material references, describes, or portrays sexual activity, but is a required part of the school curriculum. However, a book can receive a “sexually explicit” rating, indicating that the book’s material references, describes, or portrays sex in a way that’s “patently offensive” and not required for the curriculum, then the book can be removed from shelves. …
Paxton claimed during her remarks that HB 900 would offer increased transparency on school library content for parents and school districts. But this bill just increases conservative control over material they deem offensive, which just so happens to mostly feature LGBTQ+ stories.
“Texas lawmakers OK bill that aims to keep sexually explicit material out of school libraries,” The Texas Tribune, May 24, 2023
Lucy Podmore has been a school librarian for 17 years in San Antonio. Every school year, she buys more than 1,200 books for her students from multiple vendors. Podmore said the ratings would create “unreasonable obstacles” for book vendors. If HB 900 is passed, she said the bill’s requirements would slow down her book purchases. Librarians like Podmore are at the center of the bill.
“How feasible is it for the hundreds of vendors used in Texas to retroactively offer ratings on these items before librarians are allowed to purchase new materials from them?” Podmore asked lawmakers during committee testimony. “I urge you to not impede the ability of school librarians to serve their students.” …
“The bill will greatly slow the acquisition of materials by school libraries, reducing their usefulness and currency again, creating a negative impact on students,” said Mark Smith, the former Texas State Library and Archives Commission Director. …
“Such oversight has not been needed in the past and is not needed now,” Smith said. “The bill will interfere with student learning and achievement by blocking access to materials that have been restricted.”
“This Week in the Legislature: An Onslaught on Multiple Fronts,” Texas AFT, May 19, 2023
In addition to HB 1707, the Senate Education Committee also voted out HB 900, the book-banning bill authored by Rep. Jared Patterson (R-Frisco). Under HB 900, private book vendors, not school librarians or elected officials, would assign ratings to these materials. Depending on the book’s rating, it would either be removed from school library shelves or would require parental permission to be accessed.
Books highlighting LGBTQIA+ experiences and perspectives are already frequent targets of book bans in local school districts statewide. Librarians worry that this proposal would further limit their ability to educate. The vague terminology about what is considered “harmful” materials in the bill would likely have a chilling effect on teachers.
“State Laws Are Behind Many Book Bans, Even Indirectly, Report Finds,” EducationWeek, May 19, 2023
Although book bans have been reported in at least 32 states, most bans between July and December 2022 were concentrated in just five: Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah.
“Do Texas Democrats Have Stockholm Syndrome?,” Texas Monthly, May 15, 2023
What’s different this session, according to four Democratic political operatives I spoke to, is how bad the bipartisan bills are—and how little Democratic legislators seem to be getting in exchange for their votes. Take, for example, House Bill 900, a Republican-sponsored measure that would ban “sexually explicit material”—which, according to one of the bill’s authors, might include Lonesome Dove—from public school libraries. Opponents of the bill argue that the books targeted by such bans tend to focus on LGBTQ issues. A 2022 report from PEN America, a nonprofit that promotes free speech, found that Texas already has more local book bans than any other state. These bans cast “a chill over the spirit of open inquiry and intellectual freedom that underpin a flourishing democracy,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel wrote in a statement accompanying the report.
Despite intense progressive opposition to HB 900, twelve House Democrats crossed the aisle to support the measure, which passed by a vote of 95 to 52. One of the Democratic defectors, Houston representative Shawn Thierry, even praised the bill on the House floor, saying it would ban sexually explicit books that have “infiltrated” schools. Thierry, who represents a deep blue district whose voters cast ballots for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by an 80–20 margin, told me that she learned about these books from Christin Bentley, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee. In February, Bentley launched the “Filthy Books” campaign. Each weekday, she emails Texas legislators a library book she considers inappropriate for schoolchildren.
“Public school libraries see impending restrictions; Critics contact Waco trustees,” Waco Tribune-Herald, May 13, 2023:
Both Waco and Midway districts choose books and materials for their school libraries with decisions shaped by librarians knowledgeable about children’s and youth books and what is appropriate for various ages and developmental levels; standards and guidelines from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission; recommendations from national publications such as Booklist and the School Library Journal, which review books with an eye to age and grade level appropriateness; and book award lists.
[Deena Cornblum, Waco ISD assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction] said she has been irritated over outside criticism sometimes heard at school book battles in other districts that imply school librarians are out of touch with students and their communities.
“They assume our librarians aren’t community members and aren’t parents, but most are,” Cornblum said. “They are specifically trained for this. … They have the knowledge to make informed assessments.”
“The Extreme New Tactic in the Crusade to Ban Books,” TIME, May 8, 2023:
In Texas, HB 900, which just passed the state’s House of Representatives, would require book vendors to give books with any reference to sex a rating of either “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant.” Books rated “sexually explicit” could not be sold to schools, and those deemed “sexually relevant” would require parental approval for students to access.
Let’s be clear. These bills are not about protecting children. They are about using the power of the state to intimidate private companies and ban ideas and stories that some people find offensive or uncomfortable. By going after private publishing houses, these bills represent an appalling and undemocratic attempt at government overreach, and yet another escalation in the war against the freedom to read.
“House Bill 900 Hurts Small Business,” Blue Willow Bookshop, May 5, 2023:
Attention, Texas neighbors: We want to bring your attention to House Bill 900 (HB900), a law that we are urgently opposed to.
In a nutshell, HB900 would slow down school book purchases, which will negatively affect the business of local bookstores like us — and the local economy.
Read more on why we oppose House Bill 900 below, and please join us in contacting your state lawmakers to voice your opposition.
“Texas education board could ban textbooks that discuss gender identity under proposed bill,” The Texas Tribune, April 25, 2023:
Other legislation trying to restrict the kinds of books kids can access includes Senate Bill 13, from Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, which aims to keep sexually explicit material off school library shelves and has already passed in the Senate. In the House, members passed House Bill 900 — a priority for House Speaker Dade Phelan — which would also take sexually explicit books off school library shelves and would require that some books with sexual references get parental consent before a student can check them out.
“Freedom to Read Supporters Say It’s Time to Get Louder,” Publishers Weekly, April 25, 2023:
Another ABFE [American Booksellers for Free Expression] campaign gaining traction addresses Texas bills HB 900 and SB 13, both designed to restrict reading access. HB 900 proposes rating controversial books “sexually explicit” to prohibit their sale to schools, while [SB] 13 would create school library advisory councils to prescribe local values and subject librarians and teachers to criminal penalties for exposing children to material deemed harmful.
“The list of banned and censored books keep growing. Texas is still the nationwide leader,” KERA, April 21, 2023:
Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education, said a few years ago, just after the pandemic began, parent-led organizations demanded removal of books.
“The loudest voices had been a very vocal minority, but a distinct minority,” Friedman said.
That’s now expanded to local legislatures, which are increasingly pushing to have book bans encoded in state law.
“Texas House passes bill that aims to keep sexually explicit materials out of school libraries,” The Texas Tribune, April 19, 2023:
The Texas House passed a bill Thursday 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.
“Texas lawmakers’ attempts to ban school library books deemed inappropriate for kids spur confusion — and concerns,” The Texas Tribune, March 31, 2023:
The legislation targeting school library books is the latest frontier in a larger battle that’s being waged across the state about what information public schools provide kids. In 2021, lawmakers restricted how educators can teach controversial current events and America’s history of racism. This year, legislators are considering proposals that would outlaw gay pride events at schools and limit school lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity.
“The concern here is that they are trying to go to a one-size-fits-all solution for libraries,” said Lucy Podmore of the Texas Association of School Librarians. “Librarians know that campus needs vary from campus to campus.”
Current standards don’t require campuses to have certified librarians, individuals required to have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in library or information science, at least two years of classroom instruction experience and certification. HB 900 does not create a mandate that campus librarians be certified.
Thank you for getting this information together, Chris!