(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.”