Oct 28, 2022 - News

Texas library book ban lawsuit goes before Austin judge

Illustration of a gavel on a book instead of a block.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Citizens of a rural Central Texas county will ask an Austin federal judge today to stop officials from removing public library books.

Driving the news: The request for a preliminary injunction comes as the group of Llano County citizens sues county elected officials and the library advisory board over what it describes in legal briefs as a "literary witch hunt" and a violation of First Amendment rights.

We dedicated an edition of the newsletter in March to the county library fight, which distills the battles over bookshelves nationally.

  • Many of the books targeted were written by Latino or Black authors or discuss gender matters.

What the lawsuit says: County officials "have perpetuated a systematic campaign to eradicate books containing ideas or messages that they disagree with," per a filing asking for the injunction.

  • "In so doing, defendants have transformed the county's public libraries from contemplative spaces where residents can explore the marketplace of ideas to battlegrounds in defendants' political and ideological war."
  • "Publicly, defendants have claimed that their purge is aimed at removing 'pornographic' materials from library shelves. But the evidence shows that this is mere pretext," the suit claims.
  • "For example, one of the books they banned is a historical nonfiction book entitled, 'They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group.' Defendants banned it because they disagreed with the political views of the author, not because it is smut."

The other side: County officials and attorneys did not respond to Axios interview requests, but this year, County Judge Ron Cunningham — the area's chief elected officer — told Axios that Llano County "is committed to continuing to provide excellent public library services consistent with community needs and standards."

The intrigue: Llano County is represented by Jonathan Mitchell, the architect behind a 2021 Texas law that outlaws abortion after cardiac activity is detected — and empowers private citizens to bring lawsuits against those who violate it.

State of play: The library system has purchased no new books since October 2021 and has suspended the use of a digital library tool for patrons to read books that aren't on the county library shelves.

  • Two librarians have left over the book wars — including one who was fired this year.

What they're saying: "It's a downhill slope of craziness," Tina Castelan, 29, who resigned last month as chief of the Llano branch of the library, tells Axios. "It breaks my heart that it wasn't the library I had when I was a teen."

  • "I would come home crying," says Castelan, who was paid about $31,000 for her job. "I had to hear people question my professionalism, question the library as a whole."
  • She started a state job this month.

The library system is now "running on fumes," Castelan said, claiming county officials had purposely choked its budget.

  • The recently approved 2022-23 operating budget for the library is $448,501 — down from $600,967 in the fiscal year 2022 budget.

What they want: "Plaintiffs seek a preliminary injunction to prevent further harm to their First Amendment rights and to reinstate access to public library books they hold dear."

What's next: A jury trial in U.S. Judge Robert Pitman's court is scheduled for October 2023.

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