Texas’ anti-abortion legislation lets private citizens sue those they believe have violated the state’s ban. Axios reported on Thursday that the Austin attorney who helped design the historic law, Jonathan Mitchell, has drafted city ordinances that could potentially allow people to “[sue] librarians and others for their decisions about which books to put on shelves — or for expressing LGBTQ+ support.”
The news comes as GOP-led states nationwide continue to restrict what can be taught in public schools. Many conservatives and right-wing groups claim that educators and librarians are attempting to indoctrinate children into a liberal ideology, citing as evidence books that touch on subjects like race, gender and sexuality.
As of last September, Mitchell was purportedly penning “Safe Library Patron Protection” drafts for 10 Texas communities — with another 10 in the works, according to Axios. It’s unclear which communities were mulling the matter.
Similar to the abortion law, the book-related ordinances would apparently mean that violators could be sued for at least $10,000, plus attorney fees and legal expenses. The report also states that civil action could be brought against the library if workers don't scrub contested titles from shelves.
Librarians certainly aren’t happy with the idea.
Shirley Robinson, executive director of the Texas Library Association, called the ordinances “incredibly harmful” to community members and librarians alike. There are already processes in place for concerned citizens to challenge a book they’re worried about, making this proposal unnecessary and “excessive,” she said.
Whether or not the draft ordinances get passed, a chilling effect has already started to sweep over the state, Robinson said. Librarians are leaving the profession and soft censorship is ballooning, meaning that staff may refrain from filling certain collections or may remove titles before they’re challenged.
“They are afraid for their jobs. They are afraid for their staff,” she said. “We know librarians are being bullied and harassed on social media, especially in smaller communities that are being targeted by members of these groups.”
Some libraries have also installed armed security during advisory board meetings, and protests are erupting on site, she added.
“So it is having a horrific effect on the profession. These are librarians that are being targeted,” Robinson said. “I can't imagine that we would have ever even thought to say those words five years ago.”
Mitchell didn’t respond to the Observer’s requests for comment by publication time.
Regardless of one’s political views, Robinson doesn’t think that the proposed ordinances are realistic. They include intentional “vague language” to create confusion, and now, people untrained in library science could seemingly be tasked with selecting books for a narrow community majority based on their own personal biases and beliefs, she said.
“We just don't have words anymore.” – Deborah Caldwell-Stone, American Library Associationtweet this
The ordinances would also likely inflict red tape and further costs on an already strained library budget, she added.
The Lone Star State leads the country in the number of banned books, according to a 2022 report by the literary free expression advocacy group PEN America. Nearly two dozen Texas school districts were mentioned in the report, and Granbury ISD was high up on the list with around 130 bans.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, decried the draft ordinances as “abhorrent.”
Librarians already want to work with parents to find books that fit their family’s needs and values, she said. But this would effectively allow a vocal minority to limit access to information in publicly funded libraries.
A report by an ALA initiative called Unite Against Book Bans noted that students were behind only 1% of book challenges in 2021. The coalition also learned that more than two-thirds of voters disapprove of pushes to remove titles from school library shelves, and around 7 in 10 say the same when it comes to public libraries.
Caldwell-Stone, who also serves as executive director for the ALA-affiliated Freedom to Read Foundation, emphasized that libraries offer much more than books, including internet access and other resources. And the way she sees it, the local ordinances are meant to evade state laws and constitutional review in court.
People concerned about certain books have the right to ask the library to not allow their child to check it out, she said. That doesn’t mean they should “deny everyone else in the community access to it,” though.
“We really need to think about: Is that the definition of democracy and liberty, or is that the definition of an authoritarian state?” she added.
Caldwell-Stone fears that taxpayers may ultimately be the ones forced to fork over the $10,000 in such potential suits, at the expense of other community services. The idea that people could potentially reap financial rewards for exercising a heckler’s veto concerns her.
“[It] just boggles the mind that this is the priority for individuals,” she said. “And the idea that you want to punish and attack public servants for serving the public good is also just amaz— we just don't have words anymore.”