Crawford County approves $60,000 for legal fees related to library lawsuits

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 952 views 

The Crawford County Quorum Court has approved a $60,000 appropriation for anticipated legal costs to defend against two lawsuits alleging unconstitutional library censorship. If the amount is spent, it would bring the county’s cost to almost $130,000 over the issue.

The budget item, approved during the Quorum Court’s Tuesday (June 20) meeting, will pay for attorney Gentry Wahlmeier and others to defend the county, county judge, Quorum Court members and county library board members against the two lawsuits. Wahlmeier, an attorney for the county, had advised the library board against its book ban and relocation actions.

In a June 5 memo to the Quorum Court regarding a budget allocations from the judge’s budget, Crawford County Judge Chris Keith requested $60,000 to cover the legal expenses. The memo states that $15,000 of this will be paid to Little Rock-based PPGMR Law Firm as a retainer for co-council. The funds will come from the county general fund, Keith said during Tuesday’s meeting. No funds for the defense will be taken from Crawford County Library Board Fund, he said.

Crawford County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Holmes, who is listed as a defendant in one of the lawsuits along with all the prosecuting attorneys in the state, will be defended by the Arkansas Attorney General at no cost to the taxpayers, Holmes said.

On June 2, several Arkansas libraries and library associations filed a lawsuit in the Fayetteville Division of the Western District Court of Arkansas against Crawford County officials and state prosecuting attorneys in an effort to overturn Act 372. The Act is primarily a measure allowing books in public libraries to be banned or relocated.

Specifically, Act 372 creates a process for books to be challenged in public libraries, with library officials having the option to appeal the challenge with a local and/or city government. Republicans who pushed the bill in Arkansas’ recent legislative session have said the bill was needed to challenge books they have found in libraries that are inappropriate. Many of those books were LGBTQ-related.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Fayetteville Public Library, the Central Arkansas Library System, the Eureka Springs Carnegie Public Library, and the American Booksellers Association. Defendants listed include Crawford County Judge Chris Keith, members of the Crawford County Public Library Board, and all Arkansas prosecuting attorneys.

According to the filing, Act 372 limits access to constitutionally protected materials, violates constitutionally protected free speech, violates due process, and lacks a judicial review of decisions to ban or relocate library items. Part of the objection to Act 372 includes the ability of a single challenge to cause a book to be banned or relocated.

“Because any person ‘affected by’ a library item can mount a challenge to its availability to minors under the Challenge Procedure, Act 372 effectively empowers any person ‘affected by’ library materials to cause those materials to be unavailable to library patrons for a time while the challenges are processed. The Challenge Procedure creates an unconstitutional prior restraint on First Amendment-protected activity,” the filing noted.

The June 2 lawsuit is the second to be filed attempting to block libraries from censoring books. Attorney Brian Meadors filed a federal complaint May 30 against book censorship actions by the Crawford County Public Library. The action comes almost 20 years after Meadors won a similar censorship case against the Cedarville Public School District. The Crawford County Library has in recent months approved the removal and relocation of books largely because of objections from citizens to LGBTQ content.

Julie Morton, a resident of Crawford County, noted in an email to Talk Business & Politics, her concerns over the funds Crawford County is setting aside for the lawsuits.

“As a taxpayer, I am very concerned that the cost of these suits could be in the millions. After all, there are 12 plaintiffs’ attorneys, all asking for fees, plus what the county attorneys will be paid. And I, along with many in my county, do not support the stances taken by the library board,” Morton said. “So, I am paying for lawsuits that the library board was warned would happen if they segregated these books, but … they did it anyway. And now, here we are.”

If the approved $60,000 allocation is spent, the county will have paid $126,687.50 because of the library policy to remove or relocate LGBTQ-related books.

The controversy began in November 2022 when Tammi Hamby and her husband Dr. Jeffrey Hamby, a Van Buren family physician, spearheaded a campaign against LBGQT+ books being available through the library system, and then Library Director Diedre Grzymala’s book display of LBGQT+ children’s books set up at the Van Buren Public Library.

Hamby was appointed to the Crawford County Library Board by Keith and named the board chair after Jamie Balkman, former chair, and two other board members resigned after a contentious Quorum Court meeting in December.

Gryzmala resigned with a $40,687.50 severance deal Feb. 21. Eva White was appointed interim director during a special called meeting Feb. 24. White was the library director for Crawford County from 1999 to 2012 and then again from 2013 to January 2021.

Debate about the books also led to a $26,000 legal bill by Wahlmeier, who serves as a Crawford County deputy prosecutor assigned to the Quorum Court and also serves as the attorney for the library board.