Nov 15, 2023 - News

Llano library wars continue with book swap friction

Illustration of a bookshelf with books in the colors of the Texas flag.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The book wars that have pitted residents of a rural Central Texas county against one another have spilled out well beyond the courtroom.

Driving the news: A church recently backed out of hosting a community book swap in Llano after the Llano Tea Party accused the event's organizers of "pushing … pornographic books in our community."

Why it matters: The fight in Llano County distills how America's culture wars have divided communities nationally.

Catch up quick: Alleging a "literary witch hunt," a handful of Llano County residents last year asked an Austin federal judge to stop officials from removing public library books, claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated.

  • After the judge ordered the officials to return banned books to library shelves, county officials in April considered closing the county's public libraries altogether.
  • An appeal in the ongoing lawsuit, brought last year by county residents who oppose the book bans, is now before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Zoom in: The Fall Community Book Swap was organized by the Llano County Library System Foundation, whose board members include plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit, and was scheduled to be hosted by the Grace Episcopal Church.

Of note: The library system foundation itself is not involved in the lawsuit.

What they said: In encouraging its members in mid-October to press the church to abandon the event, Llano Tea Party officials wrote on Facebook that "Accountability is necessary to insure children's safty and unfortunately, this group putting this swap together is the same group pushing these pornographic books on our community."

Two days later, the church announced it would no longer host the book swap.

"Perhaps in another context, a book swap would not be an actual or a perceived threat to the community, but at this time and in this community, this Fall Book Swap has become something of a lightning rod for controversy, fear, ill intent, deception, and division," the Rev. Betsy Stephenson, the priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church, wrote on Facebook.

  • "This decision is not a win for anyone. If anything, it shows how difficult it is to live in love and charity with one's neighbors."

The book event proceeded in a local park in early November.

  • "Found some great books for my grandchildren for Christmas," one person wrote on Facebook about the event, which included fresh ginger scones. "Not to mention some wonderful reading for me!"
A book swap at a park.
The book swap ended up at a park outdoors. Photo courtesy Llano County Library System Foundation.

What's next: The friction comes as legal bills mount for supporters of a book ban.

  • A "Protect Our Children" fundraising event in late November at Llano's Sandstone Mountain Ranch, an exotic hunting and wedding venue, will include Heritage Foundation head Kevin Roberts and Republican Party of Texas head Matt Rinaldi, among others.

By the numbers: The event organizers say the county has spent "close to $200,000 on this lawsuit."

  • "Llano County needs encouragement and support as we are the tip of the spear battling this woke ideology of exposing young children to pornographic and other harmful and profane content," reads a flyer promoting the event.
  • Event organizers did not respond to an Axios interview request.

The other side: Attorneys for the Llano residents fighting the book ban have said they are doing the work pro bono. They declined to answer an Axios question about who, if anyone, is underwriting the cost of the lawsuit.

The bottom line: The Protect Our Children event will raise money to pay America First Legal, headed by former Donald Trump adviser Stephen Miller, and Jonathan Mitchell, the county's outside counsel.

  • Mitchell, who has an Austin office and also didn't respond to an Axios interview request, is widely credited with devising the legal strategy for a Texas law that bans abortion after six weeks and empowers private citizens to bring lawsuits against those who violate it.
  • Axios previously reported how Mitchell is now applying the same novel legal mechanisms to book bans.

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