Feb 28, 2024 - News

Book ban wars expand in deep-red Texas county

Illustration of a book wrapped in caution tape

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The arguments over book bans that have engulfed a Central Texas county are now spilling over into local political races.

Why it matters: The goings-on in Llano County, to the northwest of Austin, are a window into just how much issues of cultural friction, free speech and parental control dominate rural, deep-red Texas politics.

Catch up quick: Alleging a "literary witch hunt," a handful of Llano County residents in 2022 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 by county residents who oppose the book bans, is now before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

State of play: Things have gotten hot in Llano County.

  • A church last fall 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."

Friction point: Louis "Bull" Guthrie, one of the Republican candidates for an open county commissioner seat, says on his website that Llano County libraries are "under attack by people who believe child porn fiction books should be on our bookshelves and readily accessible to our children.

  • "People in our community have joined forces with law firms and liberal organizations who are HELL-BENT on destroying any remnants of our Christian values and American decency. As Commissioner, I will stand with the community and fight against these Epteinesque groomers and the pedophiles that are hiding like sewer rats under the banner of 'Freedom of Speech.'" (Misspelling is as the website reads.)

The other side: The local Middle of Texas PAC, formed to promote moderate candidates, is backing another Republican in the race, Karen Shaw, a retired teacher and school administrator.

  • The county "didn't follow their own policies, and it got blown way out of proportion," Shaw said at a candidate forum earlier this month.
  • A third candidate is running for the seat.

Worth mentioning: Organizers of the PAC include plaintiffs in the county library suit.

What they're saying: The book-banning factions "want to take us back to the '50s. It's very, very partisan, very black and white, you're either with us or against them," Denise Kennedy, the treasurer of the PAC, tells Axios. "We want to try to return to more civil discourse."

  • Since its formation a couple of months ago, the PAC has raised ​​over $7,700, spending the money mostly on mailings promoting Shaw's candidacy.

Reality check: Trump won Llano County with 79.5% of the vote in 2020, suggesting the race could be Guthrie's to lose.

  • No Democrats are running for the seat.

What's next: Arguing that school librarians are endangering children, key figures in the Llano book banning movement are promoting challengers in an upcoming school board election.

  • At a Llano Tea Party meeting this month, Bonnie Wallace, a conservative activist who served on the county library advisory board, told audience members they should oust incumbent school board member Rob Wilson.
  • In a video posted on Facebook by the news site Hill Country Scanner, Wallace asserted, without providing any support, that his wife, a Llano school district elementary school librarian, "loves porn and puts it in the elementary school."

Of note: Wilson's wife was named Citizen of the Year by the Llano Chamber of Commerce in 2018.

Wallace, Wilson, Wilson's wife and the Llano ISD superintendent did not respond to Axios interview requests.

  • "They have blasphemed this woman's name," Diane Custy Moster, another organizer of the Middle of Texas PAC and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, tells Axios.
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