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Texas residents sue county for removing books, firing librarian

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges Llano County officials violated citizens’ First Amendment rights

People look on during a county commissioners meeting on March 28 in Llano, Tex. Many in the overflow crowd came to voice their support for recent changes at the public libraries in removing books that some called “pornographic.” (Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)
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A citizens group in Llano County, Tex., has filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that county officials violated their constitutional rights when they unilaterally removed “award-winning books” from the public libraries “because they disagree with the ideas within them.”

In the 31-page filing in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio, a group of anti-censorship activists say that county officials violated the First Amendment when they removed the books, and that they did so again when they “permanently terminated access to over 17,000 digital books” they could not censor, affecting the elderly and people with disabilities who find it hard to travel to the physical library. Commissioners also voted to close library board meetings to the public, a move that also denied these citizens equal protection under the law, the suit argues.

The small county in Texas’s Hill Country has been in an uproar over its libraries since last fall, when a group of conservative Christians and members of the local tea party chapter began emailing county officials, lambasting what they called the “filth” in the public libraries. Most of the books they complained about were related to subjects such as transgender teens, sex education and race, but the list also included some as innocuous as Maurice Sendak’s classic “In the Night Kitchen.” Officials subsequently dissolved the library board and replaced it with many of those same activists, closed the meetings to the public, cut off access to e-books and fired a librarian who pushed back against the censorship.

Censorship battles' new frontier: Your public library

“Public libraries are not places of government indoctrination,” the lawsuit reads. “They are not places where the people in power can dictate what their citizens are permitted to read about and learn. When government actors target public library books because they disagree with and intend to suppress the ideas contained within them, it jeopardizes the freedoms of everyone.”

Such lawsuits are expected to proliferate after an unprecedented year of book challenges in school and public libraries by conservative groups largely objecting to LGBTQ authors and those writing about diversity and race, experts have said. The American Library Association recorded 729 challenges to library materials in 2021 — a record since the group began tracking the data in 2000.

Officials in Llano County did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But in an earlier statement on the controversy, the head of its commissioners court, County Judge Ron Cunningham, said in a statement that the county was “cognizant of the concerns of our citizens pertaining to our library system,” and he expressed disappointment that “a portion of the public and media have chosen to propagate disinformation that Llano County (and other rural communities) are operating with political or phobic motivations. This is not the case.”

The county is reviewing and updating its policies to ensure that its libraries meet Texas laws and to assure parents that “they will have knowledge, oversight, and guidance of what their children are provided access to in our libraries and through our online subscriptions,” the statement said.

Schools quietly pulling books off shelves

One of the lead activists in the case, Leila Green Little, who serves as a board member for the Llano library system’s fundraising group, said that a lawsuit was necessary “because we had no other remaining avenue to pursue change. We attended meetings, made comments, wrote letters and pleaded with the county to stop the censorship, and they never changed course.”

Green Little used public-information requests to obtain emails between the county and conservative activists that detailed the lengths to which the two sides joined forces to gut the library board and remove books.

The debate was triggered in the fall when a conservative activist in Llano, Bonnie Wallace, emailed to the county a list of 60 titles she found offensive and suggested “all the pastors to get involved in this. Perhaps they can organize a weekly prayer vigil on this specific issue. … May God protect our children from this FILTH,” the suit alleges.

Several of the books Wallace mentioned, including such adult works as “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, and “They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, have disappeared from the library’s collection. Wallace, who was subsequently named vice chair of the new library board, declined to comment.

The lawsuit also alleged that the county improperly fired librarian Suzette Baker, who oversaw a library branch in the community of Kingsland, because she refused to remove books from the shelves, created a display of historically banned books such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” and sat in on one of the new library board meetings — which was happening in her own library.

The county has said it will not comment on personnel matters; Baker said Monday that she is continuing to pursue her own legal options regarding her dismissal.

In a recent call with Texas librarians, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told the librarians that when an effort is made to remove materials from library shelves because of their content or viewpoint, that could be considered a violation of a library user’s First Amendment rights.

More books banned than ever before

Caldwell noted that federal case law in Texas has set a precedent for First Amendment claims. In 2000, a federal court ruled that a vote by the city council in Wichita Falls to allow citizens the right to censor books — resulting in the removal from children’s shelves of two gay-themed books, “Heather Has Two Mommies” and “Daddy’s Roommate” — was unconstitutional.

“Removing books altogether, removing books to a restricted shelf or imposing other restrictions on access may give rise to a First Amendment challenge, while disregarding established reconsideration policies supports a presumption by the court that the board’s motivations in removing the books are unconstitutional,” Caldwell said.