This year, local book challenges seem to have increased book in terms of numbers and the vitriol aimed at them. We’ve seen teachers pulled out of classrooms for using LGBTQ-inclusive materials, blanket book bans of any children’s educational resources to do with race, and concerning accusations of pedophilia or child pornography for carrying age-appropriate sex education books. Recently, we reported on a parent who approached the police department about a book carried in a high school classroom library instead of filing a request for review from the school board. This kind of intimidation is unlikely to result in actual charges, but it does cause teachers and librarians to fear possible repercussions and backlash for teaching or carrying materials that may be considered controversial, which includes books about race and racism, LGBTQ-inclusive picture books, and sex education or puberty resources.
In Campbell County, Wyoming, librarians are facing this legal intimidation for doing their jobs — and doing their jobs in an incredibly trying time, with pandemic protocols changing rapidly. After weeks of complaints about 18 of the books carried by the library, including This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson and Sex Is a Funny Word by Corey Silverberg (a trans-inclusive puberty book), Hugh and Susan Bennett approached the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office to pursue charges against librarians for 5 books they claim violate child sex laws. This comes on the heels of Banned Books Week.
Hugh and Susan Bennett are working with Susan Sisti, pastor of Open Door Church in Gillette, who called the books “horrible, vile, erotic porn that belongs in an adult bookstore.” Hugh Bennet said the titles were “hard-core pornography to children” and that carrying them was “felony behavior.” During a library board meeting, he told the board, “you’re fighting a losing battle and the longer you resist, the worse it’s gonna be.”
In a library board meeting, Sisti also claimed that the library was shelving books on witchcraft, satanic rituals, drinking blood and eating toads in the children’s section. Ed Sisti, also a pastor at Open Door Church, said, “There’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room and it’s called socialism. It’s everywhere, and it’s in our library. It’s seeking to divide families. That’s been an old Nazi tactic for a long time.”
County Attorney Mitchell Damsky is a prosecutor reviewing the case. They are seeking appointment of a special prosecutor to offer advice before deciding whether to pursue charges. Damsky said he finds the books to be “inappropriate for children and disgusting,” but claimed, “as a lawyer I’m sworn to uphold the Constitution and that’s why we are dealing with it with a fine-toothed comb.”
Librarians at Campbell County are shaken. They’ve received 35 recents complaints about 18 books: far higher than a public library usually receives. In fact, the director said she couldn’t find any record of another library receiving so many forms in a two week period. She asked for patience as they process all of the claims, because it requires a staff member to read the entire book as well as relevant reviews. The library also haven’t received a list of which books the Hugh and Susan Bennett claim violate laws. The library recently reviewed This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson and determined it was appropriate for the teen section.
Del Shelstad, Campbell County Commissioner has come down on the side of the protesters against the library, saying the “government has an obligation to say look we’re not going to get rid of these books but we’re going to make it so that a parent has to allow you to read that book.” While the library is trying to work through this unprecedented amount of challenges, Shelstad said, “don’t come asking me for that money [to review challenges]” and “I would absolutely not fund that, in fact, I would be in favor of cutting your funding.”
Sara Burlingame, executive director of LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality encouraged parents to make their own decisions about which books their children are reading: “But do you get to make that choice for other families?”
This isn’t the first time Campbell Country Public Library has dealt with these kind of protests. In July, a magician was scheduled to perform at the library. When a Gillette citizen posted online that the magician was a trans woman, the library began to receive protests as well as threats against the library and the performer, despite the fact that the event had nothing to do with gender or LGBTQ issues: it was just a magic show that happened to have a trans magician. The library did not feel safe hosting the event and performer did not feel safe being there, so it was cancelled.
Hugh Bennett’s son, Kevin Bennett, said about the cancelled magician event, “If progressivism means we have to expose our children to sexual materials like this, that’s not the progressivism our community needs” and also claimed that this sort of thinking leads to higher gas prices and homelessness and heroin addicts, like in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Hugh Bennett said, “The people who want to pervert our kids love to paint themselves as victims who are misunderstood. Turn your back on them and see what happens.” He added, “I don’t see any of you agreeing that child molestation and recruiting of children is a good thing, so why aren’t you doing anything?”
In July 2021, the library also had complaints made about a Pride display, including from the Bennett family. Dean Vomhof said in a library board meeting, “Parents should be informed of the queer agenda the library is implementing and have a chance to opt their children out of it before rather than after the fact.”
Kevin Bennett said there should be a straight pride month: “If we’re not encouraging heterosexuality among teenagers for an entire month, in the public library, we definitely should not be doing that with sexual identities that are known to cause things like suicide and HIV,” and his father Hugh Bennett said it was an attack on the “basic family structure” and that “What we’re looking at here is the ground game of an attempt to destroy our culture and our country. This is an assault on our morals, our ethics, or heritage, our belief in God.” Susan Bennett compared being LGBTQ to kleptomania.
Susan Sisti also claimed the display was encouraging teenagers to have sex and demanded every board member be fired: “My solution to this is that they all need to be removed. We can no longer trust them. I will never trust them again.” She also said of the teen book room, “I’ve never seen anything darker” and that “If I were Satan, I would stack it with the books that were in there,” claiming there were books on witchcraft as well as books with “dark” and “blood” in the titles. “I know about the Dungeons & Dragons, I know about their dark basement for the teens, and enough is enough.”
Library director Terri Lesley said that despite these comments, the library received “overwhelming support” in emails and phone calls about the Pride display. She also reminded citizens of Campbell County that the library is a “neutral place” and that their mission is to “provide diverse cultural opportunities for reading, learning and entertainment to all citizens of our community.”
It is incredibly unlikely that these charges, even if they are pursued, will come to anything. The County Campbell Public Library is doing their jobs, and there’s nothing illegal about carrying puberty education books or LGBTQ-friendly resources. The fact that they have received such intense backlash proves how vital these resources are: kids need to be able to access resources that can answer their questions about sex, puberty, and growing up. Without age-appropriate books on hand, they’ll likely turn to Google, which has less accurate and less age-appropriate answers.
A few loud voices can drown out a majority of reasonable opinions. I can only imagine how exhausting it must be for library board members to hear this sort of vitriol at every meeting — and we’ve seen that a few of these names pop up over and over again, protesting mask mandates, LGBTQ materials, antiracist books, and more. This is why it’s crucial to get involved in local politics, especially library board meetings and school board meetings. They are where policy changes happen.
Even when tactics like this don’t result in books being removed from shelves or librarians getting criminal charges for protecting access to information, they still contribute to a culture of intimidation that encourages librarians and teachers to self-censor: to skip the Pride month display or not teach an antiracist book or not carry a controversial title. We need to show up to voice our support for inclusive libraries so that librarians can continue to do this crucial work.
If you want to lend Campbell County Library your support, here are the Campbell County Public Library contacts.
If you want to let Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad know how you feel about him threatening to cut library funding over these book challenges, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (307) 682-7283.