Two former librarians and two library patrons are suing the city of Sterling in Kansas for firing the two librarians over a rainbow-colored symbol for autism that busybodies and ideological warriors mistook for an LGBTQ Pride symbol.
Kari Wheeler, the former director of the Sterling Free Public Library, and Brandy Lancaster, a library aide and assistant librarian, were fired by the library board — who told the pair they had lost the board’s confidence — on July 5 due to a controversy over a display that enraged a temporary employee.
Lancaster created the display in question, which was set up near the library entrance to promote the national summer reading program theme of “All Together Now.”
The display included the books Emma & Mommy Talk to God, The Color Purple, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Separate is Never Equal, Wonder, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Of those titles, only The Color Purple contains LGBTQ content.
The display had a piece of artwork showing a child in a wheelchair against a background of five colors, along with a quote from poet Maya Angelou reading, “In diversity there is beauty and strength.”
The display also contained a multicolored infinity symbol, symbolizing autism awareness, with the slogan, “We all think differently,” reports The Topeka Capital-Journal.
A temporary summer employee, Ruth Splitter, believed the autism symbol signified support for LGBTQ Pride, and told Lancaster, during an argument on June 22, she found it offensive.
Even after being told it was a neurodiversity and autism logo, Splitter launched into an “anti-LGBT diatribe,” according to the librarians’ lawsuit.
That same day, Splitter complained to library board member Michelle Miller in a text about “gay pride.” Miller, the vice chair of the library board, told Splitter she would raise her concerns at the board meeting the following day, allegedly telling her, “We’re not going to have that display up because I will rally the board members to call [Wheeler] to take it down.”
Miller then texted Wheeler, saying she had stopped by the library, even though she had not.
“I do not want any kind of rainbow display (aside from solely colors focused) especially in this month,” Miller said, referencing the fact that June is celebrated as Pride Month. “We have a conservative town and as a library do not need to make political statements (see Target and Budlight (sic) as negative examples). I certainly do not want the library to promote LGBTQ agendas.”
She later sent Wheeler a follow-up text asking to let her know if she misunderstood the display, writing, “I am totally fine with diversity of skin color display, just not represented with rainbow colors.”
According to the lawsuit, city employee Jessi Dobson, who goes to church with Miller, texted her about removing the autism awareness image and the artwork with the Maya Angelou quote and child in a wheelchair.
“This is not okay,” Dobson said, referencing a texted photo of the Angelou artwork. She also said the autism logo made her “sick to her stomach.”
Dobson also complained to Wheeler while at the library and threatened not to bring her children to the library unless the display was dismantled. Wheeler removed the display, expecting that it would be temporary, but was never allowed to reinstall it. A few weeks later, Wheeler and Lancaster were fired.
Both women, joined by two neurodivergent library patrons, Samantha Corwin and Audra Asher, filed a lawsuit in federal court against the board of directors of the library, the city of Sterling, Mayor Bob Boltz, and library board members Lindsay Wilson and Miller.
When approached for comment, Sterling City Manager Craig Crosette declined to issue a statement responding to the lawsuit, citing a policy of not commenting on ongoing litigation.
The lawsuit claims that library and city leaders retaliated against Wheeler and Lancaster, violating their constitutional rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection, as well as engaging in viewpoint discrimination, and violating the Kansas Open Records Act, which allows the public to view and copy records maintained by public entities.
Wheeler and Lancaster are asking for compensation for lost wages and future wages, as well as compensatory damages, while Corwin and Asher have asked for damages and unspecified injunctive relief. The plaintiffs’ attorney, Gaye Tibbets, has asked for injunctive relief and fees for the library’s noncompliance with an open records request, notes the Capital-Journal.
The lawsuit argues that Sterling library patrons “are entitled to a library that embraces a range of viewpoints, not just the viewpoints of those with an aversion to rainbow colors and a disdain for LGBTQ citizens.”
The lawsuit accuses the library board members of lacking training, including on the library’s own policies, and of failing to create annual reports and budget, as required by state law. The lawsuit also accuses the board of violating state law by nominating and voting on its own membership, with the mayor and city commission acting as rubber stamps and failing to provide oversight.
The lawsuit also claims that the library board has acted on anti-LGBTQ sentiment in other instances. For example, in spring 2023, a library patron suggested to Wheeler that the library buy copies of all 19 books that have received the William Allen White Children’s Book Award, named after the famed newspaperman from Emporia, Kansas. The patron worked with a former classmate’s employer, who was interested in purchasing and donating the books.
But during a library board meeting, Michelle Miller objected to buying Flight of the Puffin, which includes a nonbinary teenage character. Wheeler argued that it would be wrong to omit only one book from the set because of its viewpoint, adding that it would violate library policy and constitute censorship. Miller and at least one other board member then suggested that if the book were purchased, Wheeler should be required to hide it in the librarian’s desk.
The lawsuit also alleges the library board voted against sponsoring Sterling’s annual Fourth of July parade because one of the floats was celebrating Pride.
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