Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Proposed Texas law would force content ratings on school books

The bill, which would also create a blacklist of noncompliant publishers, has drawn criticism from surprising places, including experts who support content ratings.

(CN) — A proposed law in the Texas House of Representatives would force publishers to put content ratings on books they sell to public or charter schools.

The Republican-backed bill would also set legal limits on which grade levels could access which books in schools, and create an online, state-run blacklist of noncompliant publishers.

The proposal comes amid a nationwide fight over how and when students should learn about certain hot-button themes. Conservative interest groups have accused educators of "indoctrination" and "grooming" for discussing topics like racism and LGBTQ+ identity.

As the biennial Texas legislative session kicks off, that fight continues — and it's hardly limited to just this bill. Another proposal, by Republican state Representative Jared Patterson, would require parental consent to access what he terms "sexually relevant library materials."

Tom Oliverson, a Houston-area Republican who filed the content rating bill, says it would create something like the current TV rating system, but for school books.

“The idea was to take the TV rating system we have for the purpose of rating books,” Oliverson said last year in an interview with an ABC affiliate in Houston.

He evoked the same analogy in a social media post to constituents: “Parents and children ought to know if what they're reading is age-appropriate, just the same way that we wouldn't have young kids watching a rated R movie on television.”

Critics, though, argue there are core differences between current content rating systems and those proposed by Oliverson.

Rating systems for media like movies, television shows and video games are largely voluntary, advisory and industry-run. This one would be mandatory and regulated by the government, with legal limits on which students could access which books.

Oliverson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Sam Harless, another Houston-area Republican who is listed as a co-author on the bill, declined to comment.

In his interview with ABC, Oliverson argued criticism of his bill was overblown.

"This is not piling books in the corner and setting them on fire," he said.

And yet, Oliverson's bill has drawn criticism not just from free speech and publishing groups, but from experts who support content ratings. Take Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to age-appropriate media recommendations for schools and families.

In some ways, Common Sense Media might seem a likely backer of Oliverson's proposal. They are not.

“We do not believe in censorship,” Jill Murphy, editor-in-chief for the group, said in an emailed statement. We “are alarmed by any legislation that seeks to limit access to and availability of books in school – or anywhere for that matter.”

It's a view shared across the spectrum. PEN America, a nonprofit dedicated to free speech in literature, has called the bill "deeply undemocratic" and a "dangerous escalation in the movement to censor public education.” Christine Emeran, a director at the National Coalition Against Censorship, said in an interview that it would limit the ability of educators to decide which books are right for which child.

The American Association of Publishers — while not outright condemning the bill — questioned whether it was even constitutional.

"Parental input and community standards have always played an important role in developing local educational practices," Matthew Stratton, deputy general counsel for the group, said in an emailed statement. Still, "courts have previously struck down efforts that would compel organizations, such as publishers, to offer opinions in the form of ratings, finding that such efforts violate the First Amendment.”

In interviews, experts contrasted this proposal with other content rating systems, which are mostly intended as advice for parents.

Take movie ratings, which are assigned not by the government but by the Classification and Ratings Administration, a branch of the Motion Picture Association of America. MPAA describes the organization as "an independent group of parents.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The ratings are advisory and have no legal force behind them. Movie theaters can sell tickets to R-rated movies to preteens — though many choose not to. Likewise, no law prevents parents from showing their 8-year-old child a PG-13 movie.

In this case, there would be strict limits on which materials children could access at schools. Books rated BK-PG, which might contain "suggestive dialogue" or "infrequent profanity," would be limited to middle- and high-school students. Books rated BK-MA would be intended for students 17 and older.

While publishers would come up with initial ratings, the Texas Education Agency, which oversees education in the state, would get the final say over ratings and could contest any it disagreed with. The agency would also maintain on its website "a list of publishers who fail to comply." Public and charter schools could not buy "a book or other written material” from companies on the list.

Aside from concerns over government overreach, critics said it was impossible to separate this proposal from ongoing culture wars over school materials.

Oliverson himself has come out against so-called critical race theory, warning on social media of "liberal indoctrination in our classrooms."

A study last year by PEN America found that Texas led the country in the number of banned school books, with hundreds of prohibited titles. In many if not most cases, the targeted books dealt with politically sensitive issues. Nationwide, more than 40% of banned school books had LGBTQ+ themes or characters.

"When [lawmakers] talk about parents' rights, I think they should be pushed on which parents they mean," Jonathan Friedman, a director at PEN and an author of the study, said in an interview. "The idea of putting age ratings on books, which might seem common sense at first, is actually a means by which folks are trying to slowly chip away at the freedoms and liberties we all cherish."

In the 1990s, amidst debates over the impacts of materials like violent television shows, Joanne Cantor was a leading researcher and advocate for content rating systems. She contributed to the congressionally backed National Television Violence Study. Now a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she studies how media affects the thoughts and emotions of children.

A good content rating system, Cantor said, should provide information to help parents decide which content their children should consume. For example, a family that survived a tornado might decide not to show their children a movie with tornadoes in it.

"If you just told [children] what was in a show, they were less likely to want to watch it than if you told them they were too young," she said in an interview, summarizing one of her key findings from the TV violence study. "It was sort of a forbidden-fruit effect.”

In the case of the Texas proposal, "the ratings are so vague that a writer or publisher wouldn’t even know what they were trying to avoid," she said. "That could have a chilling effect on the creation of books."

Unlike other content rating systems, Oliverson's proposal isn't focused on giving parents guidance but is instead “much closer to what we call censorship," Cantor said. Besides, unlike materials like violent movies, which have measurable effects on children's attitudes and behaviors, there was little if any "research about harm to children" when it comes to the written word — though she acknowledged children could potentially be exposed to “unhealthy depictions of behavior” in literature too.

Like Friedman, Cantor worried that "cultural issues would bleed into this rating system," resulting in unnecessary and partisan restrictions on books. "Is there any data that shows that children are harmed by learning about Black history or learning about lesbians?"

As schools and libraries have turned into culture-war battlefields, educators have often found themselves on the front lines. As a result, some librarians are considering leaving the profession, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, a director at the American Library Association, said in an interview.

Like other critics, Caldwell-Stone saw this bill not as a good faith effort to protect children, but as ruse to prop up "one group’s moral or political agenda." She called these efforts "absolutely repugnant."

"When we as a society come to threatening individuals who have dedicated themselves to service to the community," she said, "we have reached our lowest point ever."

Follow @stephentpaulsen
Categories / Arts, Civil Rights, Education, Government, Media, Politics, Regional

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.

Loading...