Llano resident Emily Decker protests outside a Llano County Commissioner's Court meeting at the Llano County Law Enforcement Center, April 13, 2023, in Llano, Texas Source: Aaron E. Martinez/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File

Appeals Court Reexamines Order Not to Ban Library Books on Gender, History, Sexual Health

Kevin McGill READ TIME: 2 MIN.

A federal appeals court in New Orleans is taking another look at its own order requiring a Texas county to keep eight books on public library shelves that deal with subjects including sex, gender identity and racism.

Llano County officials had removed 17 books from its shelves amid complaints about the subject matter. Seven library patrons claimed the books were illegally removed in a lawsuit against county officials. U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ruled last year that the books must be returned. Attorneys for Llano County say the books were returned while they appeal Pittman's order.

While the library patrons say removing the books constitutes an illegal government squelching of viewpoints, county officials have argued that they have broad authority to decide which books belong on library shelves and that those decisions are a form of constitutionally protected government speech.

On June 6, a panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals split three ways on the case, resulting in an order that eight of the books had to be kept on the shelves, while nine others could be kept off.

That order was vacated Wednesday evening after a majority of the 17-member court granted Llano County officials a new hearing before the full court. The order did not state reasons and the hearing hasn't yet been scheduled.

In his 2023 ruling, Pitman, nominated to the federal bench by former President Barack Obama, ruled that the library plaintiffs had shown Llano officials were "driven by their antipathy to the ideas in the banned books." The works ranged from children's books to award-winning nonfiction, including "They Called Themselves the K.K.K: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group," by Susan Campbell Bartoletti; and "It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health," by Robie Harris.

Pitman was largely upheld by the 5th Circuit panel that ruled June 6. The main opinion was by Judge Jacques Wiener, nominated to the court by former President George H. W. Bush. Wiener said the books were clearly removed at the behest of county officials who disagreed with the books' messages.

Judge Leslie Southwick, a nominee of former President George W. Bush, largely agreed but said some of the removals might stand a court test as the case progresses, noting that some of the books dealt more with "juvenile, flatulent humor" than weightier subjects.

Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan, a nominee of former President Donald Trump, dissented fully, saying his colleagues "have appointed themselves co-chairs of every public library board across the Fifth Circuit."

The circuit covers federal courts in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

The decision to rehear the case was a victory for Llano County, whose lawyers argued that there were numerous errors in the June 6 opinion, including the incorrect claim that the books had not been returned the shelves pending appeals.

by Kevin McGill

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