In a victory for the freedom to read, a federal judge in Austin, Tex., has found that a library board in Llano County likely infringed the constitutional rights of readers in the community by unilaterally removing books it deemed inappropriate. The judge has issued a preliminary injunction requiring that the banned books be immediately returned to the shelves and blocking the library from removing any other books while the case continues.
In his 26-page decision, judge Robert Pitman denied Llano County’s motion to have the case dismissed on a standing issue, finding that the plaintiffs—a group of local library patrons—have “alleged sufficient facts to show they are suffering an actual, ongoing injury.” And in granting the plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief, Pitman held that the plaintiffs “have made a clear showing that they are likely to succeed on their viewpoint discrimination claim.”
The closely watched suit was first filed on April 25, 2022. Among the allegations, the plaintiffs alleged that Llano county officials were “systematically removing award-winning books from library shelves because they disagree with the ideas within them”; that they terminated the libraries' OverDrive account because county officials could not pick and choose titles available to county residents; and that the public is being improperly denied access to library board meetings. “The censorship that defendants have imposed on Llano County public libraries is offensive to the First Amendment and strikes at the core of democracy,” reads the initial federal complaint.
County officials countered that there is no injury from the removal of the books and argued that the county had broad rights to “weed” its collection and remove titles. But while Pitman’s March 30 opinion and order recognized a library’s discretion to choose and manage its collections, he reiterated that library collections are constitutionally protected from unwarranted government intrusion, and found the evidence showed Llano County officials were not simply engaged in a weeding exercise.
“Although libraries are afforded great discretion for their selection and acquisition decisions, the First Amendment prohibits the removal of books from libraries based on either viewpoint or content discrimination,” Pitman writes. “Here, the evidence shows defendants targeted and removed books, including well-regarded, prize-winning books, based on complaints that the books were inappropriate.”
Pitman ordered County officials not to remove any books from library shelves while the litigation is ongoing, and ordered the return to the library (and the library catalog) of more than a dozen books he concluded were “removed because of their viewpoint or content.”
Among those books ordered restored: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson; They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings; In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak; and My Butt is So Noisy! by Dawn McMillan.
While granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, the judge also dismissed the plaintiffs’ bid to have its OverDrive digital library access restored, finding that the library’s new contract with a competing service, Bibliotheca, mooted the issue. The court also denied relief on the issue of board meeting access, holding that the plaintiffs did not present any arguments or evidence on the issue.
In a statement to CNN, Ellen Leonida, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, called the decision a “ringing victory” for democracy. “The government cannot tell citizens what they can or can’t read,” Leonida said. “Our nation was founded on the free exchange of ideas, and banning books you disagree with is a direct attack on our most basic liberties.”
County officials have filed notice that they will appeal.