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Former librarian, fired after refusing to remove books, sues Llano County

A former librarian is suing Llano County in the Texas Hill Country region for firing her after she refused to remove books with content related to race and LGBTQ+ experiences, according to a complaint obtained exclusively by the American-Statesman in advance of the case’s filing Monday.

The lawsuit highlights the impact of increased censorship of literature across the country in rural communities such as Llano and Kingsland, where free access to information remains in jeopardy despite a federal court’s 2023 order that Llano County restore titles it had removed from its shelves.

Plaintiff Suzette Baker, a Texas native, was the head librarian at the Kingsland Public Library, 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 the push for book removals, arguing that they terminated her employment to discriminate against minority groups through book bans and suppressed her First Amendment rights as well as those of other residents.

A veteran and mother of five adult children, she 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.

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

Baker, 57, now works as a cashier at a hardware store in town, she said, “trying to make ends meet.”

Iris Halpern, right, an attorney and partner at Denver-based firm Rathod Mohamedbhai, 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.

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 this constituted suppression of Baker’s First Amendment rights.

Llano County residents Michael McDavid and Emily Decker protest outside a Commissioners Court meeting April 13. The court met to discuss closing the Llano County library system rather than complying with a judge's order to return several controversial books to the libraries' shelves.

In March 2022, Baker put up a display including 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.

More:Llano County libraries will remain open amid ongoing lawsuit over certain banned books

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

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, including “In the Night Kitchen” by Maurice Sendak, “Shine” by Lauren Myracle and “Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen” by Jazz Jennings.

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. Baker was one of the 15 speakers to address the Commissioners Court.

“This is not a communist nation,” Baker told the commissioners. “This is not a Nazi nation. You do not get to pick our reading material. It is ours.”

Suzette Baker, left, former head librarian at the Kingsland Public Library in Llano County, talks about books with attorney Iris Halpern, a partner at Denver-based firm Rathod Mohamedbhai, the office of Edwards Law in Austin on Monday. Baker protested against the removal of books that were called pornographic and was terminated in 2022.

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.

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.”

Suzette Baker holds some banned books at the Edwards Law office in Austin on Monday.

The complaint argues that Baker was wrongfully terminated and that the defendants violated civil rights laws as well as employment laws in addition to suppressing Baker’s First Amendment rights, causing her “severe emotional distress and pain.” The complaint seeks back pay, attorney’s fees and an injunction ordering the county to cease from behavior that discriminates against minorities and suppresses residents’ First Amendment rights.

Baker says her main hope for the lawsuit is that a judge will affirm that resisting orders to remove books was “the right thing to do.” She also hopes she can return to the job she loves.

Still caught in the crossfires of a national culture war, Baker said she sees parallels with her time as a diesel mechanic in the Army.

“I stood up and said I would give up to my life to protect the Constitution,” she said. “And I will.”

Statesman staff writer and investigative editor Tony Plohetski contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that “Gender Queer” is a book recommended for ages 15 and above. It was erroneously referred to as a children’s book.

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