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Texas county will keep library system open and comply with judge's order to put banned books back in circulation

Llano County commissioners made the decision at a special meeting where members of the community turned out to voice their support for the century-old library system.

LLANO, Texas — A small-town Texas library system threatened with extinction was spared Thursday after the Llano County commissioners said they would abide by a federal judge's order to restore the books they banned rather than shut the system down.

Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham, who is the head of the county commission, made the announcement after county leaders heard from more than a dozen residents at an emergency meeting.

"The library will remain open while we try this in the courts, rather than through the news media," said Cunningham, who said the county has already spent more than $100,000 on legal costs and vowed to appeal the federal judge's decision.

Outside the county building, loud cheers could be heard as jubilant opponents of shutting down the libraries celebrated.

"That's a victory," the Rev. Kevin Henderson of Sunrise Beach Federated Church declared. "That's a victory for free speech!"

A disappointed Eva Carter disagreed. She said she was on the side of those who wanted to close the libraries and predicted the federal judge's ruling would be overturned on appeal.

Llano County Library in Llano, Texas.
Llano County Library in Llano, Texas.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

“We need to fight it in the court system and get this salacious material removed," Carter, 82, said. "We have God on our side, and we expect he will get the glory when this is said and done.”

Before the commissioners made their decision, residents were given two minutes apiece to weigh in at an emergency meeting. And some of the first to speak denounced the commissioners for threatening the century-old system that, they said, has long been a vital part of the community and a haven for students seeking to do schoolwork and research.

They also dismissed as nonsense claims some in the community have made that the targeted books are pornographic.

"These books are not pornographic," librarian Suzette Baker, who works at the Kingsland branch of the system, told the commissioners.

Jeff Scoggins paused from livestreaming the meeting to warn the commissioners that they will hear it from the voters if they bow to a "minority" that is pushing to close the libraries.

It will be a black eye for Llano County, and "this could domino" to other Texas counties where local libraries have been targeted by small but vocal groups of conservative critics, Scoggins warned.

The pro-library speakers were followed by a contingent of residents who support efforts to ban certain books and who used their two minutes to read, out of context, excerpts from the targeted tomes.

Llano resident Rhonda Schneider read passages from the book “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a novel by Jesse Andrews that does not appear to be on the list of banned books but which some parents have criticized for including some sexual language.

“It is not a safe space for kids,” Schneider said of the library. “I am for closing the library until we get these books off the shelves.”

The commissioners allowed testimony from just a dozen or so residents before they went into executive session, which is held behind closed doors, while the library opponents began praying out loud and singing "Amazing Grace."

But there had been signs that the commissioners, stung by the federal judge's ruling that they violated the Constitution by yanking a dozen or so mostly children’s books from the shelves, might mothball all three branches of a library system that has served several generations of Llano residents for nearly a century.

"We're really concerned they might just shut the libraries down," Leila Green Little, one of seven people who successfully sued the county in federal court for banning the books, said ahead of the meeting.

"Our library system was started over a 100 years ago by a group of Llano County women who used to meet by our river to read books," Little added. "That was the humble start of our library system. And if they were to shut it down, it would absolutely be the end of a key piece of our county's history."

When the commissioners scheduled the special meeting, the first item on the agenda was whether to “continue or cease operations” at the library.

In addition, as part of the discovery for the lawsuit they filed against the county on April 25, 2022, Little and the other book-banning opponents uncovered a text message that Bonnie Wallace, who is vice chairman of the Llano County Library Advisory Board and an ally of the commissioners, sent to one of their supporters.

It read, in part, “the judge has said, if we lose the injunction, he will CLOSE the library because he WILL NOT put the porn back in the kid’s section!”

The judge Wallace was referring to is Cunningham. Neither Wallace nor Cunningham returned phone calls about the text message before the meeting.

Wallace, in her text message, also did not make it clear which books she or Cunningham consider to be "porn."

The book-banning issue drove a wedge through this mostly rural county 75 miles west of Austin.

Little and the other book-banning opponents urged other Llano County residents to attend the special meeting and to voice their support for the embattled library system, which serves the county's 20,000 people.

"In the Night Kitchen" by Maurice Sendak, "Larry the Farting Leprechaun" by Jane Bexley and "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents" by Isabel Wilkerson are among the books that Llano County officials removed from the library shelves.
"In the Night Kitchen," by Maurice Sendak; "Larry the Farting Leprechaun," by Jane Bexley; and "Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents," by Isabel Wilkerson, are among the books Llano County officials removed from the library shelves. HarperCollins; Amazon Digital Services; Random House

Before the meeting got underway, residents who want to keep the library opened complained that they were being denied a chance to address the commissioners in their chamber, which is known as the commissioners' courtroom and has capacity for only 35 people.

Henderson, who supported keeping the libraries open, said he was rebuffed when he went to the county clerk Wednesday to reserve a spot in the courtroom so he could address the commissioners.

Rev. Kevin Henderson of the local Sunrise Beach Federated Church says he supports keeping the libraries open. He tried to secure a chance to address the Llano County commissioners in their chamber, but was rebuffed.
The Rev. Kevin Henderson of Sunrise Beach Federated Church says he supports keeping the libraries open. He tried to secure a chance to address the Llano County commissioners in their chamber but was rebuffed.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

When he arrived at the commissioners' courtroom Thursday morning, he ran into a group of people who support banning the books gathered in the shade of a tent that had been set up for them outside and learned they had been given speaking slots.

"I don't have a number to be seated in the courtroom," Henderson said.

Inside the tent, Jason Herron, 39, denied that they had been given preferential treatment and said they arrived not long after dawn to pray.

"We are promoters of education, not propaganda," said Herron, a father of three.

From left, Lynsi Herron, 40, Jason Herron, 39 of Llano, and Sara Virdell, 37, of Brady, Texas, wait outside the Llano County Law Enforcement Building.
Lynsi Herron; her husband, Jason Herron; and Sara Virdell, 37, of Brady, Texas, wait outside the Llano County Law Enforcement Building.Suzanne Gamboa / NBC News

The Llano County emergency meeting was called after U.S. District Court Judge Robert Pitman ruled last week in favor of Little and six other residents who sued Cunningham, Wallace, the Llano County commissioners and the other library board members for removing the books.

The residents contended that their First Amendment rights to free speech were violated, as well as their 14th Amendment right to due process, because the books were removed without notice or ability to appeal.

“Defendants claim to be on a hunt to eradicate ‘pornographic’ materials,” the residents said in their complaint. “This is a pretext; none of the books Defendants have targeted is pornographic.”

The books Llano County officials removed from the library shelves include critically acclaimed works for teenagers and older readers, like Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”; “They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group,” by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; the graphic novel “Spinning,” by Tillie Walden; Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen”; and Robie H. Harris’ “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health.”

But four children’s picture books with “silly themes and rhymes” also were banned.

They were “Larry the Farting Leprechaun,” “Gary the Goose and His Gas on the Loose,” “Freddie the Farting Snowman” and “Harvey the Heart Has Too Many Farts,” according to the complaint.

And three books from Dawn McMillan’s “I Need a New Butt!” series were removed, it says.

Last year, an assistant principal at a Mississippi elementary school was fired after he read “I Need a New Butt!” to a second grade class. The reason? Because the book used words like “butt” and “fart” and included cartoon images of a child’s behind. 

Suzanne Gamboa reported from Llano and Corky Siemaszko from New York City.