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For decades, public libraries across the country — and their staffs — have operated under a modern understanding of court rulings that say books and other materials cannot be removed simply because government officials do not like the ideas they contain.
But as the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals considers a case over library books in Llano County allegedly plucked from shelves for that reason, some library advocates and legal experts are hoping that precedent is upheld.
In interviews, lawyers say that regardless of the ruling to come and any potential broader implications it may bring, they already see an erosion of the respect for libraries and what they represent.
Already, Texas libraries have received a battery of challenges to books, often against award-winning titles for young adults that explore themes of sexuality and race. They have been the recipients of unwelcome, violent threats. They are the targets of new laws, including one in Texas signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott this month aimed at keeping “sexually explicit” materials off shelves of school libraries. Librarians are concerned the law’s broad and vague language will ensnare books that are not inappropriate, and create unrealistic requirements.
“It is a very important case given the context of a public library,” said Matt Stratton, deputy general counsel for the Association of American Publishers, a trade group that — along with six large publishers — filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs in the Llano lawsuit. “The stakes are large when voices are being suppressed.”
The lawsuit against Llano County officials, filed last year by seven patrons of the library system, originates from the removal of 17 titles from the public library system, suspension of access to digital library books and replacement of the county’s library board with community members who had favored banning books they see as inappropriate for children, among other allegations.
In March, a federal judge granted the plaintiffs a temporary injunction — ordering the county officials to put the books back on shelves and let people check them out again. The judge also prohibited the defendants, which include the county judge and commissioners, from removing any more books off shelves.
The defendants argue the books were removed during a regular process of reviewing materials, often called “weeding,” and appealed the order in the federal appellate court, which heard oral arguments earlier this month.
Stratton, of the publishing trade group, said the brief it filed was prompted by the appeal and to raise a few key points to the court, including that some of the removed books are among the most honored modern literature. The brief also reiterates, as many others have in relation to this case and others, that the U.S. Constitution does not care for political affiliations in extending its rights.
The 17 titles included one 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 from Dawn McMillan’s “I Need a New Butt!” series.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression also filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs that outlined a history of censorship efforts from the public burning of Greek texts in ancient Rome to the current situation in the United States.
“It’s important to remember that throughout history, censorship has been the norm,” said Bob Corn-Revere, the organization’s chief counsel who wrote the brief. “That’s one of the things that makes the United States an exceptional country. … We have been dedicated to the ideals of the enlightenment and freedom of ideas and the right to be exposed to different ideas.”
Libraries were created with that in mind. While some debate the origins of the first library, one theory is that Benjamin Franklin started it in Philadelphia, which FIRE’s brief — citing the Library Company of Philadelphia and Franklin’s autobiography — pointed to as the country’s first successful library that the Founding Father opened because “there was not a good bookseller’s shop in any of the colonies to the southward of Boston.”
Over time and historical challenges, Corn-Revere said, the value of a free marketplace of ideas evolved into jurisprudence.
There are various landmark cases that have cemented protections for libraries and librarians, but the overall takeaway of existing library case law is that book removals cannot occur simply because a government official disagrees with the ideas in a book, said Chloe Kempf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
“That is a very clear directive that’s ingrained in our country’s history,” Kempf said. “In general, the people’s First Amendment protections should be at their highest in a public library.”
She added: “Libraries historically are … guardians of our freedom to read and to access information and they exist to preserve information and give us access to an entire range of diverse views.”
That is no different in Texas, where the State Library and Archives Commission since 1997 has endorsed the principles laid out in the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, according to the state administrative code. The bill of rights, adopted by an ALA council in 1939, offers seven guiding policies to ensure libraries “are forums for information and ideas.”
State code also defines professional librarians, who curate collections that fill shelves, as people who hold master’s degrees in library or information sciences, or a fifth-year degree in librarianship — a level of training that is more stringent in schools, where certified librarians are also required to have at least two years of classroom experience.
To some, the respect such training and values may have once commanded seems to be getting a metaphorical middle finger at the moment.
“We have individuals who are trying to tell us what they believe librarianship is without listening to librarians about what librarianship is all about,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, about the Llano case. “I do believe that it’s an effort to either limit the role of libraries in society or take them away altogether, and I think that that’s a tragedy for everyone involved.”
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