Texas legal battles over library books escalate with latest lawsuit

The furor over the removals of books from Texas libraries has only intensified.

Seven Llano County residents filed a federal lawsuit Monday against multiple public officials — including the Llano County judge and the director of the library system — alleging that residents’ rights to the 1st and 14th Amendments were violated by a month-long campaign to remove and restrict access to books deemed offensive or inappropriate.

Llano County — with a population of 21,000, about an hour northwest of Austin — has been a hotbed of controversy for months as conservative lawmakers and their appointees have lobbied to pull certain titles from shelves or in restricted sections.

“It’s scary,” plaintiffs’ attorney Ellen Leonida said. “There is a small group of people who systematically undertake an effort to ensure that nothing that deviates from their views appears in the public library. You cannot silence public discourse with blanket censorship.

The trial draws a timeline that dates back to last summer. He alleges that was when Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham, County Commissioner Jerry Don Moss and Library System Director Amber Milum began removing children’s titles that had received community complaints – including Caldecott Medal winner Maurice Sendak’s 1971 “In the Night Kitchen”.

Milum also decided to remove some health education picture books, including “I Broke My Butt!” and “Larry the Farting Leprechaun” – shelves, placing them in his filing cabinet and deleting them from the online catalog, according to the suit.

Efforts to contact Commissioners Moss and Milum were not immediately successful. Cunningham’s administrative assistant, Jennifer Buchanan, said he could not comment on ongoing litigation.

The lawsuit alleges that in late October — shortly after Texas Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, informed school officials he was launching an investigation into 850 books found on school campuses that dealt with issues of race, gender identity and sexuality – – Milum has instructed its librarians to move any of these titles to the adult section.

Then, at the request of the commissioner’s court, the library system closed for four days in December so that all children’s titles in the system could be thoroughly examined.

After finding two books on Krause’s list available at checkout through the free e-book and audiobook service OverDrive, the County Commissioners Court then voted unanimously to suspend access to the 17,000 titles in ‘OverDrive to customers.

Last month, one of the system’s three librarians was fired after refusing an order from Milum to remove titles deemed “inappropriate” or “pornographic” from a branch, according to reports.

The plaintiffs, all county library card holders, also cited several other efforts by county officials to reduce transparency and public accountability. They allege that the dissolution of the library’s former board was done in order to appoint more “politically aligned” members who could then reformulate new collection and deletion policies, according to the suit. They also allege that calling the new library board an “advisory” body was done to circumvent the state’s Open Meetings Act and open archives laws.

The lawsuit is the latest legal battle over book moves in Texas.

In late February, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Granbury ISD asking that district to reinstate the 131 titles — many of which feature LGBT characters or deal with racism in America — removed for review.

“The Granbury ISD mass book deletions provide a roadmap for further deletions that violate clear First Amendment protections for access to a range of ideas,” the ACLU’s letter read. “Schools, and especially school libraries, should be a place where students have such wide access to a wide variety of ideas – both popular and unpopular at the time.”

School libraries are caught in the middle of a culture war.  (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News)

Three books were eventually removed by the district, for “sexually explicit content or artwork”.

Over the past week, the ACLU has filed similar letters in other districts across the state, including Houston and northeast San Antonio.

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Colin L. Johnson