Appeals court tells Texas it cannot ban books for mentioning ‘butt and fart’

<span>The court’s majority opinion quoted the American poet Walt Whitman: ‘The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book.’</span><span>Photograph: Reso/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
The court’s majority opinion quoted the American poet Walt Whitman: ‘The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book.’Photograph: Reso/Rex/Shutterstock

An appellate court has ruled that Texas cannot ban books from libraries simply because they mention “butt and fart” and other content which some state officials may dislike.

The fifth US circuit court of appeals issued its decision on Thursday in a 76-page majority opinion, which was written by Judge Jacques Wiener Jr and opened with a quote from American poet Walt Whitman: “The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book.”

In its decision, the appellate court declared that “government actors may not remove books from a public library with the intent to deprive patrons of access to ideas with which they disagree”.

It added: “This court has declared that officials may not ‘remove books from school library shelves simply because they dislike the idea contained in those books and seek by their removal to prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.’”

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The appellate court’s latest decision follows a federal lawsuit filed in 2022 by seven Llano county residents against county and library officials for restricting and removing books from its public circulation.

The residents argued that the defendants violated their constitutional right to “access information and ideas” by removing 17 books based on their content and messages.

Those books include seven “butt and fart” books with titles including I Broke My Butt! and Larry the Farting Leprechaun, four young adult books on sexuality, gender identity and dysphoria – including Being Jazz: My Life As a (Transgender) Teen – and two books on the history of racism in the US, among them Caste and They Called Themselves the KKK.

Other books targeted by the ban were In the Night Kitchen, which contains cartoons of a naked child, as well as It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health, according to court documents.

The books were removed after parents complained, with library officials referring to the books as “pornographic filth”.

In its majority decision, the overwhelmingly conservative appellate court ordered eight of the 17 books to be returned, including Being Jazz: My Life As a (Transgender) Teen, Caste and They Called Themselves the KKK.

Wiener wrote how a dissenting opinion from the Donald Trump appointee Kyle Duncan “accuses us of becoming the ‘Library Police,’ citing a story by author Stephen King”.

“But King, a well-known free speech activist, would surely be horrified to see how his words are being twisted in service of censorship,” wrote Wiener, who was appointed during George HW Bush’s presidency.

“Per King: ‘As a nation, we’ve been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn’t approve of them.’ Defendants and their highlighters are the true library police.”

Wiener also said that “libraries must continuously review their collection to ensure that it is up to date” and engage in “removing outdated or duplicated materials … according to objective, neutral criteria”.

In a report released last October, the American Library Association found that Texas made the most attempts in the US to ban or restrict books in 2022. In total, the state made 93 attempts to restrict access to more than 2,300 books.

A wave of book banning has also emerged in Florida as part of the culture wars of the Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, on “wokeism,” a term meant to insult liberal values.

In January, a Florida school district removed dictionaries, encyclopedias and other books because the texts included descriptions of “sexual conduct”.

Meanwhile, in 2022, a Mississippi school district upheld the firing of an assistant principal after he read a humorous children’s book, I Need a New Butt, to his students.