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Llano County officials must offer library books they’d removed, judge orders

By Alejandro Serrano, The Texas Tribune

Llano County officials must offer library books they’d removed, judge orders” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Officials in Llano County must return to the public library system books they removed and allow them to be checked out again, a federal judge ruled this week.

The Texas judge is also prohibiting the officials from removing any more books while a lawsuit remains pending.

Seven library patrons last year sued the county judge, commissioners court, library board members and library system for restricting and banning books. They argue in the suit that their First Amendment rights to access and receive ideas had been infringed when officials limited access to certain books based on their content and messages. The county residents also alleged their 14th Amendment right to due process was violated as the books were removed without notice or ability to appeal.

The books included a book for teens that calls the Ku Klux Klan a terrorist group, Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” and a comedic children’s book with three stories from Dawn McMillan’s “I Need a New Butt!” series.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman wrote in an opinion filed Thursday that the plaintiffs had “clearly met their burden to show that these are content-based restrictions that are unlikely to pass constitutional muster.”

Still, Pitman dismissed part of the suit, which wanted county officials to reinstate the library’s previous system for e-book access.

County officials appealed Pitman’s order reinstating the banned books, according to court filings. None were immediately reached for comment. Their lawyer, former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

“The evidence demonstrates that, without an injunction, defendants will continue to make access to the subject books difficult or impossible,” Pitman wrote.

The order arrived in the middle of a continued effort by Texas politicians and some parents to restrict access to books they say are inappropriate. But literacy advocates say many of the titles Texans are targeting are mostly about sexuality and race. The Legislature is considering restrictions that would affect hundreds of school libraries across the state.

FReadom Fighters, a group of librarians that was started in November 2021 amid the challenges, called Pitman’s order a success.

In the 26-page ruling, Pitman drew on a series of events that have unfolded since before the lawsuit was filed to reach his decision.

The matter began, according to the ruling, in the summer of 2021, when four of the defendants — Rochelle Wells, Rhonda Schneider, Gay Baskin and Bonnie Wallace — were part of a group that pushed for the removal of children’s books they deemed inappropriate. They were all later appointed to a new library board.

Another defendant, Amber Milum, who serves as the library system’s director, told the county commissioners court about the complaints. Several commissioners and librarians did not see any issue with the books, but Commissioner Jerry Don Moss and County Judge Ron Cunningham told Milum to remove the books, according to the ruling.

Milum deleted two sets of books from the library’s catalog system by August of that year. At least two more books were removed in the following months due to similar complaints of encouraging “child grooming” and depicting cartoon nudity.

Wallace, Schneider and Wells complained to Cunningham in fall 2021 about other books they labeled “pornographic filth.” Wallace allegedly gave Cunningham lists, including one with dozens of titles. The books that had been labeled “pornographic” included ones that promoted the acceptance of LGBTQ views, according to the ruling. Others were about critical race theory and race.

The defendants had also referred to the literature as “CRT and LGBTQ” books in other communications.

Again, Milum pulled the books at the order of Cunningham and Moss, her superiors. Books from Wallace’s spreadsheet were pulled Nov. 12, 2021, including Wilkerson’s and the one about the KKK.

A month later, the county commissioners court closed the three-branch library for three days to review the library catalog. The review entailed labeling books and checking for “inappropriate” ones; commissioners did not define appropriateness.

The same day, according to the ruling, commissioners voted to dissolve the existing library board and create a new one, to which Wallace, Wells, Schneider and other county residents who had advocated for book removals were appointed.

Last January, the new board asked librarian Milum “that she not be present at all meeting [sic] and just on an as-needed basis,” per the ruling. A month later, staff librarians were banned from attending meetings of the new library board. Another month later, the meetings were closed to the public.

The lawsuit was filed shortly after that, in April of last year. Since then, according to the ruling, the efforts to remove certain books from the Llano libraries have not waned.

The books at issue in the suit are “available” for check out but are hidden from view and not in the catalog.

“Their existence is not discernible to the public, nor is their availability,” Pitman wrote.

The county has also created an in-house checkout system, which does not list the books that are supposedly available to be checked out.

“They are, to the extent they exist, not accessible from the library shelves,” Pitman wrote. “A patron must, notwithstanding the fact that the books’ existence is not reflected in the library catalog, know that the books can be requested. They must then make a special request for the book to be retrieved from behind the counter. This is, of course, an obvious and intentional (effort) by defendants to make it difficult if not impossible to access the materials plaintiffs seek.”

The appeal was filed with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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