close
close

St. Tammany Library board members sue over removal • Louisiana Illuminator

Three members of the St. Tammany library board who were removed after a years-long battle over the contents of books are suing the parish council and one of the district representatives in an attempt to block their removal.

Their federal lawsuit comes after the parish council voted earlier this month to replace five of the six members of the St. Tammany Library Board of Control, a volunteer organization that oversees the parish’s library system. Their removal was the culmination of months of contentious fighting.

Conservative activists in the parish, led by the far-right St. Tammany Library Accountability Project, tried to ban more than 150 books that she considered sexually explicit. Most of the disputed titles have LGBTQ+ themes. The library board repeatedly refused to restrict access to the books and rejected arguments that the books were sexually explicit. Their refusal put them at odds with the new, more conservative parish council that took office earlier this year.

The three board members – Bill McHugh, Anthony Parr and Rebecca Taylor – have filed suit against the St. Tammany Parish Council and Councilman David Cougle, founder and attorney of the Accountability Project, who led the charge to remove the members. The plaintiffs have asked the court for a temporary restraining order on their removal, allowing them to remain in their positions while the lawsuit plays out.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES IN YOUR INBOX

In a statement, the plaintiffs emphasized that the lawsuit was brought by them as individuals, and not as an official action by the library board. They also noted that Kelly LaRocca, the parish library director, is not involved in the lawsuit.

Cougle has not yet responded to a request for comment on this report.

On May 4, the parish council voted to replace five board members, ostensibly because the council discovered the board was not functioning in a staggered manner as required by state law. But instead of letting current board members falter, the board took the opportunity to remove board members who opposed book restrictions.

That violated the First Amendment rights of the ousted board members, prosecutors say.

“Plaintiffs engaged in constitutionally protected activities when they spoke and acted at Library Bord (sic) meetings, as well as when they spoke out on matters of public interest, such as the controversy over books with LGBTQ themes and characters, the or absence of sexually explicit material in libraries, whether or not certain material available in libraries constitutes ‘pornography’ or ‘obscenity,’ and whether and how minors can access such material,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit alleges that concerns about staggered terms were an “obvious ploy” used to retaliate for their protected speech and refusal to restrict access to books.

“Supreme Court precedent has focused not only on the First Amendment’s role in promoting individual self-expression, but also on its role in providing public access to discussion, debate, and the dissemination of information and ideas,” the lawsuit said. “And it has recognized that ‘the state, consistent with the spirit of the First Amendment, may not contract the spectrum of available knowledge.’”

The lawsuit was filed in federal court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. If the court chooses to issue a temporary restraining order, the existing library board could continue to serve pending the outcome of the lawsuit, which aims to permanently block the board’s decision to remove members.

“Preventing the Parish Council from engaging in unlawful dismissal of patronage will preserve the integrity and independence of the Library Board, rather than leaving it subject to the political whims of the Parish Council,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also says that allowing the members to continue serving would continue to protect the public’s constitutional rights to receive information by preserving their access to library books.