Parents soon could see movie-like ratings on books in school libraries in Texas.
A bill filed by Rep. Tom Oliverson, R-Houston, would require publishers to follow guidelines for content ratings on books and other written materials before the books can be sold to Texas public school districts or open-enrollment charter schools.
The idea for the bill came to Oliverson in the car one day. He said he was thinking about the issue of content in school books and realized he didn’t need to reinvent the wheel.
“We have had a system that has worked for television and film, two separate systems actually, but the television system’s the one I really like, has been in place for 30 years, survived court challenges and been upheld,” Oliverson said. “Everybody understands it. All of the producers, all of the TV producers, even your streaming content providers, understand it and utilize it. And so I thought, ‘Well, that’s it, we just need to take that and adapt that to books.’ ”
TV ratings give people a general idea of the content, such a violence versus cartoon violence, he said. It’s adapting a system people know and are comfortable with for library books, he said.
“Is it Wile E. Coyote having an anvil dropped on his head, or is it someone being, you know, horrifically torn apart?” he said. “Because those things are different.”
Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs for the nonprofit PEN America, said the bill is part of a trend across the country and in Texas to leverage more government control on what is taught and read in schools.
“We’ve seen what we have called educational gag orders in numerous states, bills that directly tell teachers that they can’t teach certain principles or use certain curriculum,” Friedman said. “We have seen efforts to remove books from schools, sometimes at the behest of local parents or citizens but often also, at the directive of politicians.
“So, on the heels of all that is this new proposal, which has just been introduced in the Legislature,” he said. “And I don’t know if it’s going to go anywhere, but the wind of proposals is concerning us because it looks like the next frontier of trying to find new ways to control what people can read.”
But Oliverson said “we censor stuff all the time when we feel like it’s inappropriate.”
“Bottom line is that if I can’t read it aloud at a publicly televised school board meeting without breaking a dozen FCC rules, you can call that censorship, but that essentially is the law,” he said.
The ratings range from BK-Y to BK-MA and are based on the following:
- BK-Y: It is material intended for children younger than 7 years old. The content cannot be designed or intended to frighten.
- BK-Y7: The material is intended for 7 or older. It may contain mildly frightening or violent themes.
- BK-G: This rating means it is intended for all ages. The content may contain little or no violent, sexual or profane themes.
- BK-PG: The book is meant to be read by young children if they have the guidance of an adult. The content could include suggestive dialogue or situations, infrequent profanity and moderate violence.
- BK-14: This rating means the book or material is intended for children who are at least 14 years old. It is assigned to content that may contain intensely suggestive dialogue or situations, profanity and intense violence.
- BK-MA: This is the highest rating and is intended only for readers who are at least 17 years old. These books or materials could contain explicit depictions of sexuality, strong profanity and graphic violence.
If HB 338 is passed, the ratings would have to be displayed on the front cover of the books. The ratings would have to be complete by Sept. 1, 2024, to be sold to Texas schools.
Additionally, there will be restrictions on what books and materials the schools can make available to students. Anything rated BK-PG, BK-14 or BK-MA cannot be available for students under sixth grade. No student younger than ninth grade can access anything with a rating above BK-14.
While not in the current bill, there will also be an NSLV label added which stands for nudity, sexual situations, language and violence, Oliverson said.
“Then everybody’s eyes open at that point,” he said. “Everybody knows that that book has that content in it. And then conversations can be had about whether it’s appropriate for that to be in a library.”
The president of the Texas Library Association, Mary Woodard, said HB 338 is not a bill she’d endorse.
“As librarians, we feel that individuals are able to form their own opinions about resources that they choose to read or view,” Woodard said. “And while sometimes rating systems can be a useful tool to help people do that, it’s not something that we really endorse in the library. Because that assumes that there are individuals or groups that are able to determine what is appropriate for any child anywhere, and we feel like parents really are the ones that are able to do that for their own children.”
Friedman said children progress at different rates as readers. There could be a fourth-grader in a class who is an advanced reader and another who is a reluctant reader. Typically, books already have recommended ages, but it is understood those ratings are flexible based on the reader.
Current reading levels on books in school libraries are not determined by content, but reading difficulty, Woodard said.
There already are precautions in place so children do not read adult content, she said. If a school library serves elementary students, it wouldn’t have materials that aren’t appropriate for them. If a school has a K-12th grade library, the librarians can have sections for different students or direct a student to a different book if they pick out something that is not age-appropriate, Woodard said.
Librarians also work with parents, Woodard said. If parents have concerns about what their student can access, they can tell the librarian and those concerns can be addressed.
But these ratings could take away a parent’s autonomy to say “my child is emotionally mature enough to read this,” Woodard said.
Oliverson said it starts to get complicated when considering if parents can override those ratings.
“The approach that we chose to take is more along the lines of there’s certain content that isn’t appropriate to have a certain age range period,” Oliverson said. “Something that would be rated BK-17 or BK-MA should never find its way into an elementary school library, period. End of story.”
Children can access content in a variety of ways, Oliverson said, but when it’s in a public school library it sends a message that a tax-payer funded entity finds that material educational and age appropriate.
The state-mandated rating system concerns Friedman, he said. Without that flexibility, it limits advanced readers.
Ratings exist on other products — like films and music — but Friedman said those industries moved toward self-regulation and are consumer products for people who still have the individual agency to make those purchases.
“When we’re talking about schools, and we’re talking about much harsher limits, and we’re talking about the government imposing those ratings on books — this is something that can be very easily manipulated to ban or restrict all kinds of information and ideas and books and, at its core, is unconstitutional,” he said.
The education agency also can review the ratings assigned to these books. If it disagrees with the rating assigned, it can provide written notice to the publisher with the reasoning. The publisher would have 120 days to either change the rating or cease selling the book to schools.
Fear of crossing lines
With restrictions on curriculum and vocal critics at school board meetings across the state, Friedman said teachers are concerned about crossing a potential red line in the classroom. They don’t want to teach anything that could be controversial.
“That’s a really toxic climate in which to teach young people when it comes to the freedom to read as well,” he said. “This is a core liberty that has been seen as important to developing freedom of thought and freedom of speech.”
The ban on teaching the “1619” project, an exploration by the New York Times on the history of slavery in the country, raises the question of what it is people don’t want discussed in schools, Friedman said.
“That was the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “It seems as now they want to go much further than that, particularly in restricting access to books that have LGBTQ characters. That could have a significant detrimental effect on LGBTQ students on LGBTQ parents and on really just how any student understands the diversity of human experiences and lives in the United States, in the world.”
Seeing books banned for a LGBTQ character sends a message to students that they don’t belong, Friedman said. The presence of a book on the shelf with representation can be deeply meaningful for students. He said this does not just apply to sexuality, but also ethnic, racial and religious diversity.
The debate around books has taken an emotional toll on librarians, Woodard said. Their job is to create a culture of literacy on the campus and to make sure children have access to reading materials that are both on their reading level and age-appropriate.
Emotional maturity ranges among students, she said. Some children have lived experiences that are harder than others and while some parents might not want their children reading books about those experiences, if the students living it don’t see themselves represented in the books they read it can have negative impacts on them.
Seeing content that reflects lived experiences in books can help children make sense of the world and what they are going through.
“Those are the kinds of things that librarians think about when they’re choosing books for kids,” Woodard said. “We serve in public schools, we serve all different kinds of families. We want to have books that reflect all of those different kinds of families.”
If children have two moms or two dads and never see their family reflected in books, they start wondering what is wrong with their family that keeps them from being depicted in stories, Woodard said.
Academic research backs this up, she said. Librarians are taught that books are windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. They can be a window into an experience someone’s never had they learn about. As a mirror, books can reflect people’s own experiences back at them to give them confidence. As sliding glass doors, books allow people to put themselves in the position of someone else and develop empathy.
Oliverson said the rating system is not about content related to a certain demographic, but anything that is inappropriate.
“This is about content that is of a mature nature, that is obscene,” he said. “The fact that a book may appeal to somebody because of their sexual orientation or because of a demographic that they identify with doesn’t excuse the fact that the material itself may be completely age inappropriate.”
Book restrictions make librarians constantly wonder if they’ll get pushback for the books they have in circulation and, although the majority of parents might not have an issue, those who do have a problem are louder, Woodard said.
“It starts to affect the way that you do your job, and it’s very stressful,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of librarians leave the profession.”
Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.