Librarian sues Texas county after being fired for refusing to remove banned books

Corrections and clarifications: This story, reposted from the Austin-American Statesman, has been updated to reflect that "Gender Queer" is a book recommended for ages 15 and above. A previous version of the story incorrectly referred to it as a children’s book.

AUSTIN, Texas — A librarian is suing a Texas county for firing her after she refused to remove books with content related to race and LGBTQ+ experiences, according to a complaint obtained by the Austin American-Statesman, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Plaintiff Suzette Baker, a Texas native, was the head librarian at the Kingsland Public Library in Llano County, about 65 miles northwest of Austin. She is suing the county, the county Commissioners Court, County Judge Ron Cunningham and several community activists who were appointed to the Library Advisory Board during a push for book removals.

Baker is arguing that terminating her employment constitutes discrimination against minority groups through book bans, suppressing her First Amendment rights as well as those of other residents. The complaint seeks back pay, attorney's fees and an injunction ordering the county to cease behavior that discriminates against minorities and suppresses residents' First Amendment rights.

A veteran and mother of five adult children, Baker had more than a decade of experience as a librarian before joining the library and loved her job, which she considered her life’s calling. Baker, 57, now works as a cashier at a hardware store in town, she said, "trying to make ends meet."

Reading "teaches you empathy. It teaches you how to be a human," she said in a phone interview with the Statesman.

The lawsuit highlights the impact of increased censorship of literature across the country in rural communities such as Llano County, where free access to information remains in jeopardy despite a federal court's 2023 order that the county restore titles it had removed from its shelves. It is the latest legal battle over what content children should have access to in public libraries, especially books that touch on race or LGBTQ+ issues.

Since 2021, the United States has seen an escalation in book bans and attempted bans. And last year, those challenges in public libraries and school-based libraries hit record highs, according to the American Library Association and PEN America, a free speech advocacy group.

Iris Halpern, right, an attorney and partner at Edwards Law, looks through one of the books removed from the Kingsland Public Library in Llano County, where her client, Suzette Baker, left, was the head librarian before being fired in 2022.
Iris Halpern, right, an attorney and partner at Edwards Law, looks through one of the books removed from the Kingsland Public Library in Llano County, where her client, Suzette Baker, left, was the head librarian before being fired in 2022.

Group of community activists demanded book removals

According to the lawsuit, tension over library materials in Llano County began when a group of community activists demanded that the library remove several specific titles from the children's and teens' sections during the summer of 2021, deeming them "inappropriate."

In November 2021, community member Bonnie Wallace sent a spreadsheet with about 60 books to Llano County Library Director Amber Milum and asked that librarians remove "all books that depict any type of sexual activity or questionable nudity" entirely. Milum directed Baker to remove the books, but Baker refused.

The group's efforts to have books on racial or LGBTQ+ topics removed from the public library continued to escalate. Some were children's books they deemed inappropriate, such as "I Broke My Butt." Others were award-winning adult nonfiction books, including "They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group” and “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents."

Another was "Gender Queer," a book recommended for ages 15 and above. The library serves community members of all ages and books are labeled to indicate recommended age range.

In January 2022, the Commissioners Court, Cunningham and Commissioner Jerry Don Moss voted to dissolve the county's library advisory board and appoint 12 new members, all of whom were part of the community group pushing for book removals, the lawsuit says.

Milum told librarians they were prohibited from attending public meetings, even during their time off. The lawsuit argues that such a prohibition constituted suppression of Baker's First Amendment rights.

In March 2022, Baker put up a display showing historically banned books such as "How to be an Anti-Racist," "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Between the World and Me," and some books from the group's spreadsheet. She also spelled out "We put the 'lit' in literature," on a marquee in front of the library, which the lawsuit describes as "a double entendre referring to 'lit' as both the slang word for fun and to the historical burning of books."

Milum asked Baker to remove the books on the spreadsheet from the display and terminated Baker's employment shortly thereafter, according to the lawsuit. She cited "insubordination," "failure to follow instructions" and "allowing personal opinions to interfere with job duties and procedures" among the reasons Baker was removed.

Milum and Cunningham did not immediately respond to the Statesman's requests for comment.

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County Commissioners Court did not vote on book removals

Moss, a defendant in the lawsuit, said the Commissioners Court does not determine whether librarians are hired or fired and that he had no role in or knowledge of the decision.

"The first thing I heard about Ms. Baker being terminated was on Facebook," he said in a phone call with the Statesman.

Moss said the Commissioners Court never voted to have books removed. He also said the court was not aware of books being removed, and that he had not seen any of the 17 books listed in the federal lawsuit before he was served with the papers.

The lawsuit says Milum removed books based on their content, violating the library system's weeding policies, by which books that have not been checked out for several years, are in poor physical condition or are outdated are taken out of circulation. Moss said the commissioners had no part in the weeding process.

A group of Llano County residents who opposed the censorship filed a lawsuit in April 2022. A judge for the Western District of Texas ruled the court had violated First Amendment rights and issued a preliminary injunction that ordered the county to replace numerous books in April 2023.

The county appealed the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case remains pending.

After the court order came down, members of the pro-removal group demanded that the county close the libraries altogether to prevent children from accessing what they called "pornographic filth," the Statesman reported. Dozens of people attended a Commissioners Court meeting convened by Cunningham over the issue, with more than half urging the county to keep the public institutions open.

The libraries remained open, but Baker said she has watched as the library has become less accessible to the public. The county has not hired a new librarian to replace Baker and operates with one full-time and one part-time librarian, compared with three full-time librarians in 2021. And though the libraries used to be open on Saturdays, they are now closed on weekends.

"The library cannot function with the skeletal staff that it has now," Baker said.

The county also has frozen book purchases since 2021 and blocked access to more than 17,000 digital titles, the lawsuit states.

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'Deprive people of information'

Incidents in recent years have drawn national attention and scrutiny from advocates who say book bans are an attack on students' freedoms and people's constitutional rights.

Attorney Iris Halpern, who represented a Colorado librarian in a successful wrongful termination suit under similar circumstances, said Llano County's tactics represent a dangerous disregard for residents' access to information.

"This is incredibly dangerous because it seems the larger agenda here is to just deprive people of information, period," Halpern said. "There is no investment in making sure that we have a healthy democracy and healthy communication and sharing of ideas, healthy spaces for learning about new topics, or to engage in debate."

Educators and librarians have been put in the spotlight over book censorship disputes. In 2023, some faced attacks or threats for publicly defending access to these materials.

At Chapin High School in South Carolina, some students alleged that a teacher made them feel "ashamed to be Caucasian" for assigning Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me," a letter to his son about his perception of being Black in America. The school removed the book from the syllabus and placed a formal letter of reprimand in the teacher's file, the Washington Post reported.

At Hamshire-Fannett Independent School District in Texas, a teacher was removed from an eighth-grade classroom after allowing students to read an adaptation of "The Diary of Anne Frank," which included sexual content. The district said the book was not approved to be read in the class.

Contributing: Tony Plohetski and Niki Griswold, Austin American-Statesman; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Texas librarian sues county that fired her for refusing to ban books