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Authors Guild Sues to Protect Free Expression in Texas: Challenging the “Reader Act,” an Unconstitutional Censorship Law

U.S. and Texas flags on Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas

Update: September 1, 2023: In a hearing on August 31, the Court prohibited HB 900 (also known as The Reader Act) from going into effect on September 1st, with a written decision to be issued in the next week or two. The Court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss and found that plaintiffs had standing to bring their lawsuit and granted plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction staying enforcement of the ratings law. The defendants’ counsel stated that defendants will appeal the injunction and asked that the law be allowed to go into effect while the case is pending. We’ll provide a more detailed update once we get the official written statement from the court. Read our press release about this update here.

July 25, 2023: The Authors Guild has joined a powerful coalition of Texas bookstores, national booksellers, authors, and publishers to challenge a new censorship law in Texas. Known as the “Reader Act” (formerly HB 900), this law has raised concerns among literary enthusiasts and advocates of free expression.

The coalition, including prominent names such as Austin’s BookPeople and West Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, has filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, Austin Division, to put a stop to the law’s implementation by seeking both immediate and long-term injunctions. The lawsuit seeks to defend the right to free expression and protect the long-established rights of local communities to set and implement standards for school materials.

The new Texas law mandates that independent bookstores, national chain bookstores, large online book retailers, book publishers, and other vendors review and rate millions of books and library materials for sexual content if those items are destined for school libraries. What is concerning is that these ratings must follow vague labels dictated by the state, with no recourse for judicial review. The definitions of “sexually explicit material” and “sexually relevant material” are particularly problematic as they lack clarity and have no basis in existing law. This represents a significant departure from the traditional rights of local communities to determine the appropriateness of materials for their schools.

Under this law, many authors’ books will effectively be banned in the significant Texas school market, even when there is nothing remotely obscene or sexualized in them. Since most publishers can’t afford to create and sell different versions of books to different markets, these authors will lose sales to the school market throughout the country—a market that authors of children’s books, young adult books, and literary classics rely on. Even if a book can be sold outside the Texas book market, publicly rating it as “sexual” in any way will put a target on it and prompt challenges and actions against it in other jurisdictions. Moreover, the vagueness of the Texas standard makes it virtually impossible for an author to comply with it when writing future works; the only way will be to avoid references to sex or sexuality entirely. This will compel authors who want to sell their books to schools to censor themselves and avoid writing books that address issues many teenagers experience in their lives or communities, such as family, love, and preventing or dealing with pregnancy.  

During debates on the law, concerns were raised about beloved works such as Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, and even the Bible facing potential censorship. The quintessential Texas novel Lonesome Dove is also at risk of being restricted in school libraries.

The Authors Guild, along with the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, firmly believes that such a law violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments. It censors speech and imposes content-based restrictions while also delegating the power to regulate that speech to private entities.

Beyond its constitutional issues, the law could have devastating consequences for book vendors. The requirement to rate past and present materials would place an enormous burden on bookstores, potentially jeopardizing the viability of some small businesses. It also runs the risk of discouraging publishers from investing in new works, and authors may hesitate to write books that could be subject to such stringent regulation.

The Authors Guild champions the importance of local autonomy, parental choice, diversity of interests, and freedom of expression. We advocate for the preservation of individual communities’ rights to determine what is age-appropriate and valuable for their schools, without undue government interference.

As we embark on this crucial legal battle, we call upon all authors, readers, and literary enthusiasts to join us in safeguarding the future of free expression in Texas. Together, we can protect the state’s rich literary heritage and ensure that students have access to a wide array of thought-provoking and diverse literature for generations to come. If you’re on social media, please join the Authors Guild by amplifying and sharing our collective message for freedom of speech and freedom to choose what we can read and write.

Access the motion for preliminary injunction here (PDF).

Access the complaint here (PDF).

Access the press release here.