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Judge dismisses suit against JCPS librarian over books centering LGBTQ voices

The exterior of the Jefferson County Court House.
Jess Clark
/
LPM
A man tried to sue a high school librarian for thousands of dollars for keeping the book of personal essays by a Black, nonbinary author on the shelves.

Waggener High School librarian Kristen Heckel should have been welcoming students back to school Tuesday after a long holiday weekend. Instead, she was in small claims court with school district attorneys, defending her decision to keep "All Boys Aren't Blue" on the shelves.

The award-winning book of personal essays by George M. Johnson has become a target of book bans across the U.S., along with many other titles written by Black or LGBTQ authors. 2021 and 2022 were both record-setting years for attempts at censorship, according to the anti-censorship group Unite Against Book Bans. "All Boys Aren’t Blue" is in the top ten most challenged books of 2021, alongside "The Bluest Eye," by Toni Morrison, a frequent flier on banned books lists over the last four decades. "Gender Queer," by Maia Kobabe, also made the 2021 list. Kobabe’s graphic memoir was the subject of another recent challenge in Jefferson County Public Schools.

Court records show a Jefferson County man, Kurt Wallace, began sending letters to Heckel in the spring of 2022 objecting to the library’s purchase of "All Boys Aren’t Blue" and other titles Wallace claimed were “obscene” or “pornographic.” He also claimed the books were intended for “grooming” minors for sexual exploitation, a common unfounded and homophobic talking point among some right-wing activists. Such rhetoric often accompanies debates about so-called “Don’t Say Gay” laws which have been passed or proposed by conservative lawmakers to restrict classroom speech about gender, sexuality and sexual orientation.

Wallace recently won a favorable judgment from Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron in a case against the Jefferson County Board of Education. Cameron ruled the board had wrongfully barred Wallace from an August meeting because he refused to wear a mask. The school board is appealing Cameron’s decision.

When Heckel refused to pull the titles Wallace objected to, he sued her in small claims court — a legal venue where individuals can settle disputes involving $2,500 or less in money or personal property. Other cases heard Tuesday included quarrels over car repairs and moving jobs.

Wallace’s claim was that the librarian owed him $2,300 in damages for her book selections.

In the courtroom Tuesday, District Court Judge Jennifer Leibson explained what cases could and could not be decided in Small Claims Division. Then she called up Wallace. The middle-aged man in dress slacks made his way to the stand dragging a carry-on-sized suitcase behind him, presumably filled with evidence he intended to present. He also carried a large leather-bound Bible and a posterboard scrawled with red marker but illegible from a distance.

He never had a chance to read it. Leibson dismissed the case.

“Mr. Wallace, your case is one of those cases,” Leibson said. “You cannot recover in small claims on this kind of judgment.” She had explained earlier that small claims court is only meant to decide cases in which a plaintiff had incurred actual costs as the result of a defendant’s action.

Wallace argued briefly with the judge, before she asked him to leave the courtroom. He objected, saying Leibson had failed to cite the statute that allowed her to dismiss the case, and left. Several minutes later, he returned and sat in the public viewing area with his Bible in his lap.

After the judge dismissed Wallace, she turned to Heckel, who sat flanked by JCPS attorneys.

“I just want to say I’m so sorry you have to deal with this,” Leibson told Heckel. “I admire your courage. … I wish you had been my librarian when I was a kid.”

Heckel, a 22-year employee of JCPS, declined to be interviewed for this story. She did, however, offer a brief statement before the hearing.

“Books are mirrors and windows,” she told LPM News. “And any reader deserves the right to choose to see themself in what they read.”

Wallace also declined to be interviewed for this story.

A JCPS spokesperson said the district is not aware of any other lawsuits against school librarians.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.