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Texas House advances bill that aims to keep sexually explicit materials out of school libraries

By Sneha Dey, The Texas Tribune

Texas House advances bill that aims to keep sexually explicit materials out of school libraries” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Texas House gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill 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.

Under House Bill 900 — a priority for House Speaker Dade Phelan — sexually explicit books would be taken off shelves, and some books with sexual references would require parental consent. It passed in the House in a 95-53 initial vote Wednesday. The bill still needs to get final approval from the House before it makes its way to the Senate.

If HB 900 passes, book vendors would have to assign “sexually relevant” and “sexually explicit” ratings to books based on the presence of depictions or references to sex. The bill defines “sexually relevant” as material that describes or portrays sexual activity and is part of required school curriculum.

It defines “sexually explicit” as material describing or portraying sexual behavior that is “patently offensive” and not part of required curriculum. School libraries could not carry any books vendors deemed to have “sexually explicit material,” and students wanting to check out “sexually relevant” material would have to get parental consent.

Book bans have a long history of being implemented in a discriminatory manner, said state Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, during debate Wednesday. Titles targeted by book bans tend to center protagonists of color and tackle LGBTQ issues, race and racism, and teen pregnancy, he said.

Reynolds unsuccessfully tried to introduce an amendment that would require the Texas Education Agency to track which books are being removed from public schools. The bill’s author, Republican state Rep. Jared Patterson of Frisco, shut down the amendment, saying this bill was “not a race issue.”

Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa cast the House vote as a dangerous effort from Republicans.

“Texas Republicans seem eager to send our state down a slippery slope where extremists can come together and ban huge catalogs of literature every two years — especially if those books don’t mesh with their ideas of what ‘traditional society’ should look like,” Hinojosa said in a statement.

But 11 Democrats joined Republicans to pass the legislation. State Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, said on the floor the bill would establish guardrails to keep out books that have “infiltrated” schools, referencing one that she said teaches kids how to go on dating websites.

The bill targeting library books is the latest in a battle about what information public schools can teach or provide to kids. In 2021, lawmakers restricted how educators can teach 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.

Legal experts, librarians and some parents have expressed concern and confusion about what books would be targeted if HB 900 becomes law. They worry the absence of certain titles from shelves could restrict the learning and growth of students whose experiences might not be reflected in the books that would remain.

The Senate has already passed its priority school library bill. Senate Bill 13 would let parents receive notices about what their children check out from school libraries, ban “harmful” and indecent materials, and create local councils to ensure “community values are reflected” in the materials available to kids. That bill has already been sent to the House. HB 900 needs a final vote before it goes to the Senate.

It’s not clear if lawmakers plan to try and pass both bills or if they want to combine aspects of each into one piece of legislation.

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