Various iconic books – whether commonly read in school or popular to read personally – face a new threat of censorship, one that could affect the stories consumed by high school students drastically.
On June 6, the Texas House of Representatives passed House Bill 900 which establishes a rating system for sexually explicit content in books in public school libraries.
The bill, which went into effect on Sep. 1, requires book vendors to rate books with sexual content as “sexually explicit” if they contain sexual content, or as “sexually relevant” if the book contains that content, but is required for course curriculum.
Per the bill, book vendors can be barred from selling certain books at all in the future if their ratings are determined inadequate by the state. Books rated as “sexually relevant” can still be sold to school libraries, as long as parental consent is provided with checkout of the book, while books rated as “sexually explicit” cannot be sold to public school libraries under any circumstances.
The bill comes during a nationwide movement to regulate the content of books provided to students in school libraries and ban books with content deemed harmful for students or their well-being.
According to Texas House District 115 Representative Julie Johnson for District 115, which includes Coppell, this bill is a byproduct of earlier legislative decisions.
“House Bill 900 and many other bills were part of a larger attack on our institutions of learning and minority communities this last legislative session,” Johnson said via email.
Johnson also thinks a precedent may be set by this bill for future legislative actions.
“This bill could potentially increase the number of bills in future legislative sessions that call for the overreach of the Texas Legislature into the personal lives of Texans and could erode long-held protections,” Johnson said.
In terms of the Coppell High School Library specifically, librarian Alicia Grijalva thinks that the bill will not have much of an effect.
“We’re always looking to have an age appropriate library, so I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of change, as we’re already very careful with making sure the content is age appropriate and something that should be in the library,” Grijalva said.
Grijalva said a diverse selection of books is invaluable to high school students as they need to be exposed to different thought processes and world-views to gain a nuanced understanding of their world.
“Any person is going to have experiences in life where they feel different or like they’re the only one reading about those experiences,” Grijalva said. “Connecting to a fictional character or a nonfiction story is cathartic and gratifying.”
According to Grijalva, the opposite can also be true as when one reads about an unfamiliar experience, their world-view can be expanded.
“Students being able to read about different experiences and maybe see that there are similarities between their experiences and someone else’s, such as a character that they thought they didn’t have anything in common with, is a really important part of learning about not just yourself, but the world,” Grijalva said.
Grijalva said the concern with the bill is that it may limit high school students from reading experiences that could be very important and valuable for them to read.
One fear people may have regarding the bill is that the language of the bill is overly vague, and can therefore lead to the bill being misinterpreted or misused. Due to the ambiguous language, decisions made on what books or themes to limit could be arbitrary and disadvantageous for students.
“We want to be able to provide students with a lot of great books on different topics that represent all aspects of our school population, the community at large and the world at large,” Grijalva said. “The concern is that we won’t be able to out of concerns for liability or interpretations that are just really strict.”
However, IB English teacher Lauren Rasca thinks that the bill’s vagueness, although problematic, may be necessary for future adaptation and analysis of the bill.
“The vagueness of the bill is kind of concerning, but I think it also affords the opportunity for there to be some changes that maybe need to be made as we see this being pushed out and implemented,” Rasca said.
Rasca views the bill as an extremely complicated issue, with many factors affecting its outcome and perception.
“It’s so nuanced and there are so many different ways that this could go – some of them good, some of them not good,” Rasca said. “I wish it was something that had an easy black-and-white, this-or-that answer, and it just doesn’t.”
Additionally, Rasca thinks parents should have a say in what their child reads in school.
“As a mother of a 4-year-old, a first grader, and a fourth grader, I don’t want sexually explicit material to be at the elementary schools,“ Rasca said. “Parents should be involved in their children’s education, they should be involved in their children’s lives. I think this bill should not take away the responsibility of the parents to be involved.”
Dinesh Somasundaram, a CHS student, anticipates that the bill may not hold too much merit in the current age of the internet, where many resources are easily accessible online.
“I feel in this day and age, parental consent isn’t really as strong as it used to be,” Somasundaram said.
Somasundaram thinks the bill won’t affect high school students very much, as most students do not get their books from the school libraries. Additionally, he thinks that the bill may not be of much use in the future, as students are moving away from books and onto other forms of media and entertainment.
“As time goes on, people read less books and get more on video games and devices. I’m wondering, in the next four years or so, will this book ban thing even still be a big issue anymore?,” Somasundaram said.
Even if the bill’s impact is rendered less meaningful due to current circumstances, the ideas it presents and the precedents it sets still have a deeper meaning for schools and students, beyond books. According to Johnson, the bill could affect the First Amendment rights of students and book vendors.
“This right is violated when the government removes a library book simply because it dislikes the ideas contained in those books,” Johnson said. “Additionally, the enforcement of HB 900 could violate the First Amendment rights of book vendors by compelling their speech on a matter of opinion.”
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