First Amendment dispute in Llano County lawsuit challenging removal of ‘inappropriate’ books from library

Today, Llano County authorities asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging recent removals of books from county libraries, arguing that library selections count as government speech not controlled by the First Amendment.

“The First Amendment gives government officials the discretion to decide what the government will say,” the county’s brief read.

The case began in April when seven Llano County citizens filed a lawsuit against the Llano County Commissioners Court, led by County Judge Ron Cunningham, for removing certain books deemed sexually explicit from the shelves of the county library and terminated access to the library’s e-book and audiobook collection. .

The county says it removed the picture books depicting nudity and placed them in a filing cabinet in August in response to community complaints. Two months later, he moved some books from the children’s sections to the adult sections. The county also terminated access to the 17,000 books online because it could not remove two specific titles on its own., and in November, county officials halted purchases of new books and removed more books listed on state Rep. Matt Krause’s (R-Fort Worth) list of allegedly inappropriate titles.

Citizens say the county’s obscenity pattern was just a cover for point of view discrimination, pointing to the suppression of non-fiction political books without illustrations. They also claim that the county’s new library advisory board, formed in January 2022, violates the law because it meets behind closed doors.

“As of August 2021, the defendants – officials who control the books available in county public libraries – have perpetuated a systematic campaign to eradicate books containing ideas or messages with which they do not agree to the county library collection,” the seven citizens said. claim.

“In doing so, Defendants have transformed County Public Libraries from contemplative spaces where residents can explore the marketplace of ideas into battlegrounds in Defendants’ political and ideological warfare. More disturbingly, Defendants have taken steps to hide their censorship activities in secrecy and isolate them from all forms of community scrutiny and control.

Citizens asked the judge assigned to the case, Federal District Judge Robert Pitman, for a court order to put the books back on the shelves while the case is pending.

In response, county commissioners say the First Amendment does not require the government to maintain public forums, including libraries. Relying on a Supreme Court case and other precedents, officials say library selections count as government speech that may be more strictly regulated than other speech.

“Because there is no right to a public forum in the first place, the complete closure of a forum generally nullifies First Amendment claims to that forum,” the county’s Thursday brief read. .

Further, the county argues that allowing the removals to continue would actually contribute to free speech.

“Allowing governments to shut down forums altogether, on the other hand, reduces the anticipated cost of opening them; rather than avoid creating such a forum for fear of future liability, governments are encouraged to experiment with creating various forums appropriate to each of their communities. The result is not less talk, but more,” officials say.

Texas Open Meetings Law requires all state government bodies to make their meetings open to the general public. However, the county says the library advisory board does not count as a “government agency” under the law. definition in the law.

The county’s motion today asked Pitman to dismiss the case on the basis that the citizens have no actual injury the court can deal with.

“No plaintiff has alleged a specific plan to access books they no longer have access to through the county library system. A claimant also did not allege a specific intention to attend future meetings of the advisory board. There are allegations that some plaintiffs have been denied access to a few books and OverDrive in the past, but “past exposure” is not enough,” the county argues.

Colin L. Johnson