TEXAS VIEW: Conservative appeals court gets it right

THE POINT: Texas booksellers aren’t the morality police.

Atticus Finch, the relentlessly principled defense attorney and father in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” has just wrapped up his closing statement when his family’s cook and housekeeper interrupts the court, to pass him a note. For a moment, Finch loses his composure. It turns out his children haven’t been seen at home for hours and, to his chagrin, he realizes they’ve been sitting in the balcony watching proceedings of the trial.

The details of the allegations his children heard aren’t the sort that most parents discuss openly with their children, especially 9-year-olds like “Scout,” the narrator of the classic book. The language of the proceedings is rife with sexually explicit descriptions and racial slurs. And yet, the 1960 novel was for years required reading in private and public schools across the country because of the way its author used a full set of storytelling tools to give young readers a nuanced understanding of these most taboo of subjects.

We’re glad Lee put those fictional children in the courtroom, and that many school districts agreed that kids ought to have an opportunity to read and discuss such a troubling story and a remarkable contribution to American literature.

So it was easy to scoff when the Texas Legislature passed a bill meant to keep inappropriate books off library shelves by requiring vendors to rate the explicitness of any sexual references in the books they sell to school districts. Would “To Kill a Mockingbird” be canceled? What about the Texas classic “ Lonesome Dove?”

The name of the bill — the READER Act — invited another layer of ridicule. It stands for Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resources.

In truth, the act that made it into law is more nuanced than its detractors let on. Before designating a book “explicit,” vendors are to “consider the full context in which the description, depiction, or portrayal of sexual conduct appears” and whether that might “mitigate the offensiveness of the material.”

Sounds good at first. And hey, it could be a decent jobs program for all the English majors out there who’d much rather get paid to read than to drive for Uber. Trouble is, the law expected booksellers to shoulder the cost of this vast undertaking. And not just for future sales to schools, but for past ones as well. A lawsuit was promptly filed to challenge the law. One of the plaintiffs, Blue Willow Bookshop, on Houston’s west side, estimated that such assessments would cost between $200 and $1,000 per book, and between $4 million and $500 million to rate the ones already sold. By comparison, the store’s annual sales are just over $1 million.

On Aug. 31, one day before the law would have gone into effect, a federal district judge agreed with the booksellers and blocked the enforcement of the bill. Texas appealed. Last Wednesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, widely considered the most conservative federal appellate court, upheld the lower court’s ruling. The justices ruled that the law violated the First Amendment because it “compelled speech.” If Blue Willow didn’t issue ratings it would lose business with Katy ISD — and, according to the suit, already has — and would go out of business if it tried to comply.

The author of the bill, state Rep. Jared Patterson, a Republican out of Frisco, posted to X that he was “disappointed” by the 5th Circuit’s decision but added that “the state library standards, which are the first ever of their kind, remain Texas law, as the court opinion states, ‘the library standards are not an issue.’”

Patterson has a point. State policymakers and school districts have an obligation to set standards. The folks who write, publish and sell books — as the 5th Circuit made clear — have a constitutionally protected right to put whatever they think will sell out into the world, but that doesn’t mean all of it, no matter how prurient or vulgar, should end up on a library shelf. These days, actually, it is liberal school districts removing “To Kill a Mockingbird” from their assigned reading lists because of outrage over the racial slurs used by bigoted characters and the depictions of Black characters through the white child narrator’s eyes.

Even Harper Lee, the author, seemed uneasy about having written a book for young audiences that’s so explicit. Her moral hero, Finch, is upset that his kids snuck into the courtroom. A minister sitting next to the children objected, too, but eventually both relented. They seem to understand that children can’t be protected from the harsh realities of the world, and that was before kids carried little computers in their pockets connected to the internet.

Kids need moral guides, not blinders.

At home, those guides should be parents or guardians. At school? There’s a whole profession dedicated to interpreting community standards when picking out books. They’re called teachers and librarians, and they deserve thoughtful and clear policies with enough discretion to curate school collections that can help our children become informed, engaged citizens —not people who fear information or engagement with people who hold different beliefs. We’ve got enough of those already.

Houston Chronicle