The bookstores’ view of the book rating lawsuit

Some useful context from one of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit challenging a new “book rating” law.

When Valerie Koehler bought Blue Willow Bookshop, she wanted to offer an expansive selection of children’s books.

“We made it our mission to have a robust children’s section, so we’re half kids, half adults,” Koehler said. “Not a very common business model for most bookstores, but it works for us.”

Her children were in grade school when she started running the roughly 1,200-square-foot bookstore in 1996. Over the years, she realized that to be profitable, she would have to sell to more than in-store customers. She worked with area school districts — now numbering 21 — to sell books to them, help organize author visits and provide book giveaways to students.

But a Texas law set to take effect Sept. 1 could jeopardize her ability to serve school districts, Koehler said. It will require school library booksellers to identify books, including those written for teens, that are “sexually explicit” or “sexually relevant,” and those books rated “sexually explicit” would be banned from schools. The law also requires booksellers to identify such books sold to school districts in the past.


Independent booksellers say the law will require them to allocate employees, money and time to reading and rating every one of their books potentially sold to school districts. Booksellers also say they may not have records showing the contents of every book sold over several decades.

“It’s just overwhelming,” Koehler said. “It is untenable. It’s not something a small business, even a large business, could do.”

See here for the background. This story had a link to an earlier Chron story from when the bill would pass that said it would affect some 300 independent bookstores around the state. Where’s the Texas Association of Business when you really need them?

The Austin Chronicle had a story of its own from the day the lawsuit was filed.

On BookPeople’s HB 900 FAQ page, CEO Charley Rejsek writes, “Setting aside for the moment the fact that this law is clearly unconstitutional, booksellers do not see a clear path forward to rating the content of the thousands of titles sold to schools in the past, nor the thousands of titles that are published each year that could be requested by a school for purchase, neither do we have the training nor funding needed to do so.” Rejsek told the Statesman that the workload created by the law is “bad for small business”: Small independent bookstores simply don’t have the resources to review every book a school orders, which she fears would affect the business they could do with local schools.

Furthermore, the definitions of “sexually relevant” and “sexually explicit” are so vague as to be impossible for booksellers to determine. The plaintiffs point out that the definition of “sexual conduct” in the penal code seemingly encompasses any sexual-related topic, which they fundamentally oppose, as the subjective standards restrict students’ access to knowledge. The book ban does exempt material “related to the curriculum,” but there is no statewide standard for curriculum, so “it would be unclear what is ‘related to’ it,” the plaintiffs write.

The law defines “sexually explicit material” as anything “sexually relevant” presented “in a way that is patently offensive,” as defined by the penal code, which requires plaintiffs to determine whether a book is “so offensive on its face as to affront current community standards of decency.” Plaintiffs ask, which community’s standards? Is it “based on Austin, Texas, or Onalaska, Texas – or any of the more than 1,200 incorporated municipalities across Texas”? The law would also require booksellers to recall all “sexually explicit” or “relevant” books they have already sold to schools, placing additional administrative burden on them.


Ultimately, writes Rejsek, “booksellers should not be put in the position of broadly determining what best serves all Texan communities. Each community is individual and has different needs. Setting local guidelines is not the government’s job either. It is the local librarian’s and teacher’s job, in conjunction with the community they serve.”

Just a note here that the two authors of this bill were Sen. Angela Paxton, who is up for election next year in a moderately competitive district and who also believes that there should be absolutely no exceptions to Texas’ abortion law, and Rep. Jared Patterson, who is also in a moderately competitive district and who filed a ton of obnoxious bills like this one this past session. You want to channel some energy into electoral activism, there are two good avenues for you right there. In the meantime, let’s hope for a good ruling in the courts.

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