On January 17th, 2024, the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals backed up the lower court decision to block specific provisions in HB 900, one of Texas’s most controversial book rating laws. The court found the law to very likely violate First Amendment rights that prohibit the use of compelled speech.
The Fifth Circuit consists of a three-panel judge and is described as the most conservative court in the nation. The state argued the plaintiff’s claims were “unripe” as the standards had not yet been implemented, of weak standing, and barred by the doctrine of state sovereign immunity. The court quickly passed through the state’s arguments before hearing only the first plaintiff’s claim: the violations of compelled speech. The court concluded, “We start and end with the compelled-speech claim because we conclude that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of that claim.”
The law would force booksellers to provide ratings for their inventory based on sexual explicitness and relevance by April 1st. Many booksellers argued that not only was the date unreasonable to complete the ratings, but the law itself was violating the First Amendment against compelled speech. The state claimed the law would be a ministerial task, yet the court immediately rejected the argument, stating the process would require booksellers to do contextual analysis that was not “a simple disclosure of factual information.”
Another accepted argument from the plaintiffs was the severe economic destruction due to the financial cost of the ratings. The threat to businesses and the potential cost addition to the consumer would be mutually harmful, the court decided.
The lawsuit against HB 900 was by BookPeople located in Austin and Blue Willow Bookshop located in Houston. In addition, the American Bookseller Association, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors Guild, and the Comic Book Lega Defense Fund have joined the legal battle.
The plaintiffs found a small victory in this court decision, as they expressed in a joint statement, “With this historic decision the court has moved decisively to ensure the constitutionally protected speech of authors, booksellers, publishers, and readers, and prevent the state government from unlawfully compelling speech on the part of private citizens.”
The court decision allows for a small, yet mighty victory for the book sphere. Nonetheless, the fight against book bans continues.