Residents sue Llano County officials, library director, board members to end book bans

The Young Adults section at the Llano Public Library on Monday, Dec. 14, 2021 in Llano. (Sergio Flores For The Texas Tribune, Sergio Flores For The Texas Tribune)

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Seven Llano County residents filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the county judge, commissioners, library board members and library systems director for restricting and banning books from its three-branch public library system.

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The lawsuit states that the county judge, commissioners and library director removed several books off shelves, suspended access to digital library books, replaced the Llano County library board with community members in favor of book bans, halted new library book orders and allowed the library board to close its meetings to the public in a coordinated censorship campaign that violates the First Amendment and 14th Amendment.

The plaintiffs — Leila Green Little, Jeanne Puryear, Kathy Kennedy, Rebecca Jones, Richard Day, Cynthia Waring and Diane Moster — insist their constitutional rights were violated when public officials censored books based on content and failed to provide proper notice or an avenue for community comment.

When the plaintiffs attempted to check out several removed books, they said, they were denied access.

“Public libraries are not places of government indoctrination. They are not places where the people in power can dictate what their citizens are permitted to read about and learn,” the lawsuit states. “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.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyer Ellen Leonida said she plans to file a preliminary injunction this week to get books back on shelves and access to the digital library distributor, OverDrive, reinstated while the lawsuit is pending. Leonida also wants the lawsuit to serve as a warning that small groups like the one in this case cannot control the availability of books without legal resistance.

“They can’t censor books, unequivocally, based on viewpoints that they disagree with,” Leonida said.

According to the suit, the defendants worked together to remove several children’s books that they found inappropriate from library shelves in early fall of last year. Then, after state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, notified the Texas Education Agency of a list of 850 books he found objectionable that were found in school libraries, some of the same titles were removed from the Llano libraries.

Books removed from the library include Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen,” Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s “They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group” and Jazz Jennings’ “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen.”

In November, Bonnie Wallace, who eventually became the vice chair of the new Llano County library board, emailed Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham with a list of 60 books on Krause’s list that were available in Llano libraries, according to emails referenced in the lawsuit and obtained by The Texas Tribune. Later that day, Cunningham directed library system director Amber Milum to remove “all books that depict any type of sexual activity or questionable nudity.”

In addition to library books’ removal, Cunningham told librarians to stop ordering new publications in November, according to the lawsuit.

Listed as the lawsuit’s defendants were Cunningham; Llano County Commissioners Jerry Don Moss, Peter Jones, Mike Sandoval and Linda Raschke; Milum, the library director; and library board members Rochelle Wells, Rhonda Schneider, Gay Baskin and Wallace.

A call seeking comment from the Llano County attorney, county commissioners and the library director was not immediately returned.

The plaintiffs claim that the defendants’ censorship efforts have nothing to do with protecting children from obscene material because several books that reference sex and nudity are still on the library system’s shelves. Instead, they say, “Defendants’ censorship campaign targeted books that conflicted with Defendants’ political and religious views.”

The library system’s material selection policy, which outlines how librarians choose books, states the library cannot order pornographic titles. Even if books emphasize sex or contain profanity, libraries can still stock them if they are realistic or hold literary value, according to the lawsuit.

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