Crawford County parents sue library system over relocation of LGBTQ+ children’s books
Three Crawford County parents have sued the county judge, quorum court, library board and interim library director, alleging “unlawful censorship of materials,” specifically children’s books with LGBTQ+ topics, in the county’s five library branches.
Rebecka Virden, Nina Prater, Samantha Rowlett and their minor children are all Crawford County residents and library patrons, according to the complaint filed Friday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas. The plaintiffs object to “the stigmatization of certain books by placing a prominent color label on them and moving the books to a separate ‘social section’” in each library, according to the complaint.
“Crawford County’s censorship of the ‘Social Section’ books arises from impermissible religious considerations, i.e., its extreme and malevolent view of the Bible, resulting in the County punishing the already marginalized LGBTQ+ community,” the plaintiffs state.
This violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government entities from favoring an establishment of religion, according to the complaint.
Supporters and opponents of children’s access to LGBTQ+ content in libraries have spent months sparring before Crawford County’s 13-member quorum court.
The library system’s then-director, Deidre Grzymala, “reached a compromise” with the county governing body at its December 2022 meeting after several residents complained about the LGBTQ+ children’s books, according to a transcription from the library board’s January meeting contained in the lawsuit.
The new “social section” is a separate section of the library catalog and located within the adult sections of each library branch, Grzymala told library board chairwoman Tammi Hamby.
“If there are any books that we missed, just alert the staff, and we can get it switched over,” Grzymala said. “We also put color label covers on the books for staff so that books do not get shelved in the wrong area.”
Hamby and her husband, Jeffrey Hamby, have been vocal opponents of the availability of LGBTQ+ content where children can access it, calling it “grooming a generation of children to feel this is normal and an accepted way of life” in a letter to Crawford County pastors after the December quorum court meeting.
“These children are too young to make those decisions and it should be left solely up to the parents what they want their child to be taught concerning these issues,” the Hambys wrote.
They praised the “tentative agreement to remove the offensive books from the children’s section in the library and to work on a permanent solution to the problem.”
The plaintiffs allege that the “‘tentative agreement’ was in actuality the Quorum Court engaging in viewpoint discrimination.”
Opponents of the books in question have claimed they are sexually explicit, but “none of these books could fathomably be accused of ‘grooming,’ ‘pornography,’ or ‘exposing children to explicit sexual ideas or imagery,’” the complaint states.
Some of the books in question include a children’s guide to LGBTQ+ Pride flags and a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale with gay characters, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs want the court to “order the Crawford County Library System to restore and maintain its books and future acquisitions to the same administrative controls and processes as they existed in June 2022,” per the complaint.
Statewide debate over library content
After Grzymala’s “compromise” with the quorum court in December, three of the five library board members resigned, including the previous chair, and the quorum court appointed Tammi Hamby as one of the new members. The full board appointed her as the new chair.
Grzymala resigned in February, and the quorum court appointed former library system director Eva White as interim director.
The library board tabled a motion from Hamby at the January meeting that would have given the board power to review and give the final say on whether the library system will purchase books and add them to the collection. The motion came up again in March, and the board withdrew the proposal and instead voted to review the library’s policy manual, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
The Crawford County Library System is not the first in Arkansas to face conservative attacks over content considered “inappropriate” for minors.
The Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library system saw voters cut its funding in half in 2022 after protests over an LGBTQ+ book display and a transgender author’s visit to the library within the previous couple of years.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, was the primary sponsor of a bill in the state Legislature earlier this year that became Act 372 of 2023, which will take effect Aug. 1.
The law will allow people to challenge library materials they consider “obscene” and create potential criminal liability for librarians who disseminate such materials to minors. Local elected officials will have the final say over whether a challenged book can stay on publicly available library shelves or must be moved to an area that minors cannot access.
The Central Arkansas Library System, the Fayetteville Public Library, the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library and 14 other plaintiffs plan to sue the state over Act 372, alleging it is unconstitutional.
Pulaski County Justice of the Peace Luke McCoy told the CALS board of directors Thursday that he and his fellow Republican justices “will probably make [the lawsuit] an issue” next time the county judge has to appoint a member of the board. McCoy is also communications director for the conservative Family Council.
Meanwhile in neighboring Saline County, the quorum court recommended in April that the county library system “relocate materials that are not subject matter or age appropriate for children, due to their sexual content or imagery, to an area that is not accessible to children” in light of Act 372.
Library director Patty Hector has refused to do this and told the court that “there is nothing wrong with these books” and “it’s not illegal to be gay or trans.”
County Judge Matt Brumley said Hector’s words gave him a “high degree of concern” and reminded the board on Monday that he is responsible for appointing them.
In addition to LGBTQ+ content, supporters of relocating books out of children’s reach have cited books about sex education and systemic racism as fundamentally inappropriate for anyone under 18.
Every library system in Arkansas has a policy to address challenges from the public, and those policies will have to be altered to comply with Act 372. The existing policies are rarely used throughout the state — though Crawford County residents have submitted several complaints this year and last year — and people who challenge books often want them to be removed rather than relocated, the Advocate reported earlier this month.