Crawford County faces federal civil rights lawsuit after moving of LGBTQ children’s books in libraries

Moms say LGBTQ+-themed books wrongfully blocked

A selection of childrens books which have been under scrutiny from community members are displayed in a designated section, Thursday, May 11, 2023, at the Alma Public Library in Alma. (River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)
A selection of childrens books which have been under scrutiny from community members are displayed in a designated section, Thursday, May 11, 2023, at the Alma Public Library in Alma. (River Valley Democrat-Gazette/Hank Layton)

FORT SMITH -- Some Crawford County residents have filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit in response to what the lawsuit describes as unlawful censorship of material in county libraries.

Rebecka Virden, Nina Prater and Samantha Rowlett filed the suit Friday in the U.S. District Court in the Western District of Arkansas and followed up with an amended complaint Tuesday.

The suit, filed on behalf of Virden, Prater, Rowlett and their minor children, names Crawford County, County Judge Chris Keith, members of both the county Quorum Court and library board and Eva White, the county library system's interim director, as defendants in their official capacities.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of restricting the residents' right to receive certain information from the library in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and, by extension, federal law. The information consists of children's books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning subject matter.

The Quorum Court began a series of actions late last year and earlier this year that led to the stigmatization of the books, according to the lawsuit. The books had a prominent color label placed on them and were moved out of the children's section of their respective libraries to a separate "social section" containing books for all ages.

The lawsuit cites a letter addressed to pastors in the county from Tammi Hamby -- whom Keith would later appoint to the library board after three of the board's five members resigned in December -- as illustrative of the defendants' motivations for removing the books.

Hamby's letter, which she co-wrote with her husband Jeffrey Hamby, expressed concern over children's books being purchased and displayed at local libraries that focused on "alternative lifestyles."

"The only reason to do this is grooming a generation of children to feel this is normal and an accepted way of life," the letter states. "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."

A group of concerned residents attended the Quorum Court meeting Dec. 19, during which there was a tentative agreement to remove the books from the children's section and work on a "permanent solution" to the issue, according to the letter. The letter also urged the pastors to ask their congregations to attend the library board's meeting Jan. 10.

"We need as many people who can to show up with us to make sure the offensive and harmful children's books are removed," the letter states. "There have been several constructive suggestions regarding these books and others like them in the library and the library director Deidre Grzymala seems amenable to negotiating."

The lawsuit argues the tentative agreement the letter described was actually the Quorum Court engaging in "viewpoint discrimination" by requiring the library board and county library system's director -- Grzymala at the time -- to label and sequester books based on their content.

The Quorum Court heard from multiple people about the library Dec. 19, including Jeffrey Hamby, Grzymala and Jami Anne Balkman, the Library Board's then-chairwoman.

Craig Wahlmeier, justice of the peace for District 11, asked Grzymala if she would move the books in question out of the children's section as part of a compromise regarding the material, according to a recording of the meeting. Grzymala responded in the affirmative.

Grzymala said at the Library Board's Jan. 10 meeting each of the library system's branches had moved LGBTQ children's books into a new area within their respective adult book sections, according to a recording of the meeting.

Other reasons that have been offered for singling out the books and making them more difficult and stigmatizing to read are they are pornography or exposing children to explicit sexual ideas or imagery, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit denies any of the books could be accused of such. It cites and describes three examples it claims are appropriate to be in the children's section of a public library: "Uncle Bobby's Wedding," "Cinderelliot: A Scrumptious Fairytale" and "The Big Book of Pride Flags."

"The county's censorship of 'Pride Flags' showcases that the censorship has nothing to do with 'grooming,' 'pornography' or 'exposing children to explicit sexual ideas or imagery,'" the lawsuit states. "This is a book about flags and the LGBTQ+ community. Crawford County censors the group because of its policy to target, stigmatize, silence and hate LGBTQ+ people and their ideas."

"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 lawsuit states.

Virden, Prater and Rowlett are asking the federal court to order the county library system to restore and maintain its books and future acquisitions according to the administrative controls and processes that existed in June 2022. They are also asking for costs, attorney's fees and other relief as allowed by law.

Gentry Wahlmeier, an attorney for the county, didn't respond to phone and email requests for comment by deadline Tuesday. The county hadn't filed a response to the lawsuit in federal court by that time either, court records indicate.

The amended complaint filed Tuesday corrected inaccuracies the first document contained concerning the Quorum Court's current membership.

Library system director

The Crawford County Library Board appointed Eva White as interim director of the county library system Feb. 24. Deidre Grzymala left the director position the same day as part of a separation agreement between her, the county, the system and the Van Buren Public Library.

Source: Crawford County Library Board


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