Table of Contents

FIRE to Fifth Circuit: Protect our public libraries 

book shelves in a library

The Founders loved libraries. Tired of ordering his books from England, Benjamin Franklin started the country’s first successful lending library in colonial Philadelphia. As our second President, John Adams signed legislation creating the Library of Congress in 1800. And after the British put the torch to the Library of Congress during the War of 1812, Thomas Jefferson made sure it was replaced with the entirety of his own personal library, a collection he had diligently curated for decades. 

Why did the Founders value libraries? Because they knew that our democratic experiment depended on an informed citizenry and the free exchange of ideas. 

“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both,” James Madison observed. “Knowledge will for ever govern ignorance: and a people who mean to be their own Governours, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” 

That’s why today, Texas state law directs the state’s public libraries to present to the public “the widest diversity of views,” including “those which are unorthodox and unpopular with the majority.” And that’s why last Friday, FIRE filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in support of the plaintiffs in Little v. Llano County, a First Amendment suit challenging ideologically driven book removals from Llano Public Library. 

By banning books, Llano County officials placed their personal preferences above the public’s right to receive information.

The Founders would have been aghast at the raw abuse of governmental power that took place in Llano, a town about 75 miles northwest of Austin. As we explain in our brief, the case concerns an ideologically driven purge of books from Llano’s public library:

It arose after four of the Defendants, members of an activist group, deemed certain children’s books “inappropriate” and demanded their removal from Llano Public Library. A number of books were removed in response, but this was just the beginning. In the months that followed, more books disappeared following similar demands, including award-winning books by acclaimed authors like Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen and Robie H. Harris’ It’s Perfectly Normal

The activists denounced the books as “obscene” and “pornographic filth,” using hyperbolic assertions typical of contentious contemporary debates over books. While such inflammatory rhetoric is common currency in the loose discourse of activists and politicians, it cannot be taken seriously as a matter of law. 

Nevertheless, Defendant Wallace supplied a list of “dozens” of books she called “pornographic” because she claimed they promoted acceptance of LGBTQ views, and she targeted others for discussing critical race theory. Removal of more books followed. Meanwhile, the existing library board was dissolved, and activists advocating book removals (including Defendants Wallace, Wells, and Schneider) were named to a new “Library Advisory Board” that halted acquisitions, barred library staff from attending Board meetings, and closed the library temporarily to scour the shelves of books the new members deemed “inappropriate.”

By banning books, Llano County officials placed their personal preferences above the public’s right to receive information — and, as FIRE’s brief details, they also became the latest practitioners of an ancient mode of censorship.

From Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in 212 B.C.E. to notorious postal inspector Anthony Comstock, humans have consistently tried to erase dissenting or minority views from public consciousness by banning, burning, or destroying books. And as this case shows, this misguided, illiberal tradition isn’t going away any time soon — in fact, we’re suffering through an unprecedented wave of book bans in America right now.

Kansas City Public Library in Missouri

Show-Me state censorship: Proposed new rule threatens Missouri’s public libraries


A proposed rule in Missouri would restrict public libraries from using state funds to purchase books that discuss sex and would allow "any person" to challenge those materials.

Read More

But here in the United States, the First Amendment doctrine that developed after Comstock’s reign of censorship now makes clear that the First Amendment protects our right to receive information. Once the government establishes an institution designed to facilitate access to information, it can’t impose ideological restrictions that prevent the institution from fulfilling that purpose. As FIRE’s brief argues, when it comes to “public libraries — chartered to serve the entire community by offering a wide spectrum of ideas free of censorship —  this means political victors don’t get to call the shots just because they hold temporary positions of power.”

The bottom line is that whether book bans target the Bible or Judy Blume, politicized efforts to restrict access to information like the one in Llano County can’t be squared with the Founders’ faith in the free exchange of ideas and our national commitment to freedom of expression. As FIRE’s brief reminds the Fifth Circuit, these battles will persist until the courts declare that the only way to win is not to play.

Read FIRE’s full brief.

The Fifth Circuit is scheduled to hear oral argument in Little v. Llano County tomorrow afternoon, and audio of the argument may be streamed here.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.