For more than one year, a controversy has been growing in Botetourt County regarding explicit materials in or near the libraries’ children’s areas. On one side is a grassroots community organization Botetourt Residents Against Child Exploitation (BRACE), seeking removal of some materials. On the other side one finds the Botetourt County Supervisors, administration, and library leadership opposing such removals.
When researching for this story, The Roanoke Star asked BRACE for a timeline of key events in the controversy. That Dec. 19, 2023 timeline from group leader Charles Ruhl is given below. A news story including comments from two County officials is upcoming.
COMMENTARY: by Charles Ruhl
BRACE was founded by a Botetourt woman in March of 2023. She did so after seeing an adult DVD, BROS, on display near the children’s section at the Fincastle Library. She complained to staff that the cover, which showed two men grasping each other’s bottoms, was inappropriate for children to see. The response was American Library Association talking points about the library’s need to provide “information and enlightenment.”
That resident gave a citizen comment at the 1/24/23 Board of Supervisors meeting, demanding that the Board act to remove “perverted” materials from our libraries. There was no response. After that she began talking with parents in her church and elsewhere who were also unhappy with inappropriate, sexually graphic materials available for children in the County libraries.
She met with Botetourt County Library Director Julie Phillips in March to review her formal request to have 60 books and DVDs reviewed to potentially be removed.
Four members of the group spoke at the 3/28/23 Board of Supervisors meeting. Supervisor Billy Martin expressed alarm that there such books were in our libraries but said as a Supervisor he could not do anything about it.
Members Charles and Lucy Ruhl met with Julie Phillips in April to review their formal request to have one book reviewed to potentially be removed. All of the requests for removal submitted by the group were subsequently denied using the same form letter.
That resident and another member of the group met with Supervisors Scothorn and Martin in April. The Supervisors admitted that the books seemed inappropriate. Supervisor Scothorn said he would seek expert advice on what to do about it.
Members Charles and Lucy Ruhl sent a letter to the editor of the Fincastle Herald on 4/27/23 with a quote from a book for children aged 8 to 12 and a description of an illustration from a book for children aged 5 to 8. The editor responded that the letter could not be printed because “the nature of the letter is too graphic for our younger readers.”
At the 4/28/23 Board of Supervisors meeting the BRACE founder presented the Board with a draft resolution which offered solutions to the problem including providing for citizen input on which books to add or remove from the collection. The Supervisors did not acknowledge the resolution and did not respond to subsequent emails about it.
At the May Library Board meeting there was a guest speaker, Lisa Varga, the Executive Director of the Virginia Library Association. Several members of the group were in attendance. Ms. Varga implied that virtually no books could be removed because that would be “viewpoint discrimination.” Charles Ruhl asked her if he wrote a children’s book on how to commit suicide would it be put on the shelf. She said if it was from a “reputable” publisher and received “starred” reviews then yes. Ms. Varga was one of the “experts” that the Supervisors promised to seek out.
On 5/31/23, members of the group and several local pastors met with Julie Phillips, her boss Deputy County Administrator David Moorman, and Supervisor Clinton. The only concession made by the County was to put on the County website the form to request materials to be removed.
In the meeting Julie Phillips discussed her past. Before she was hired in 2019 she had been terminated from her job as branch manager of the Pelham Road Library in Greenville, SC.
When asked why she was terminated she said she didn’t know and “wasn’t told.” Her situation involved a drag queen story hour that had been requested at another library in Greenville. Julie Phillips said she warned the Board of Supervisors that if it wasn’t held the County could be sued. The event was held after which Phillips was terminated.
Member Danny Goad on 6/7/23 held a sign on the road near the Bonsack Food Lion that said Supervisor Billy Martin allows porn in our libraries. Supervisor Martin accosted Danny and was subsequently charged with assault. Martin lost his primary for re-election later that month.
In June, Charles Ruhl was appointed chair of the group.
At the 6/27/23 Board of Supervisors meeting, Charles Ruhl noted that the Supervisors had invited attorney Theresa Chmara to speak that day about the library issue. (The second expert promised by the Supervisors.) Charles pointed out that Chmara was the lead attorney for the American Library Association in their challenge of the Children’s Internet Protection Act signed into law by Bill Clinton in 2000. The law allowed libraries to install filters to keep children from accessing pornography. Chmara argued that the law “forces libraries to censor access to speech.” The Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that the law was constitutional.
At the end of the meeting, Supervisor Amy White denied any problem with the books in question and admonished our group for not letting go of the problem.
At the 7/17/23 Board of Supervisors meeting, County Attorney Mike Lockaby spoke at the behest of Supervisor Scothorn about the illegality of removing books. He cited the Pico v. Board of Education and Miller v. California Supreme Court cases as justification for his position, but omitted their rulings that vulgar, obscene, and sexually explicit materials are not protected by the First Amendment.
At the 7/31/23 Board of Supervisors meeting, the BRACE founder presented the Board with a petition to remove inappropriate books and to adopt her draft resolution which had been signed by over 1,300 citizens of the County. The Board did not respond. Instead, they later read in turns their resolution to fully support Julie Phillips and her staff and their resolution to fully support all current library policies and procedures.
Since then we have tried to make more County citizens aware of what’s going on and about the materials in the children’s section of our libraries through meetings, going door to door, and with road-side signs that refer people to our website, WeAreBRACE.org. Our group plans to regroup in January to determine next steps. This is not over.
This was an interesting situation. Library Director Julie Phillips wrote a letter to the editor of the Fincastle Herald that was published on 8/16/23. In it she said: “The theory that I am part of a supposed agenda driven by the American Library Association (ALA) is interesting, since I am not a member of the ALA, nor does the ALA or any similar organization have any involvement in our library’s policies, activities, or collection.”
Yet, the County library policies available on the County’s library website are all lifted from the ALA.
The fiscal year 2024 budget for the County libraries included $2,093 for “Dues & Assoc Memberships.” I did a FOIA request to obtain the specifics and was provided this by the County on 10/26:
Note that not only the ALA membership is there but also the PLA, ALSC, VALSA, and CORE, all of which are divisions of the ALA.
Within 24 hours, to do damage control, the County clerk sent me this email message:
Allow me to provide the following update from our Library Director to the approved FY24 budget for Dues & Memberships: “The approved FY24 budget for the library included an organizational membership to the ALA and four divisions, but we’ve decided not to renew our membership this year.”
“Renew” of course means there is membership currently.
I emailed the County Supervisors to ask if this means I can tell the media that Botetourt County has severed ties with the ALA. No response.
–Charles Ruhl, Botetourt Residents Against Child Exploitation (BRACE)
Updated 1:06 pm Feb. 6, 2024