Think “Botetourt County,” and many envisage scenic landscapes, historic towns, the James River, hardworking farmers and peaceful neighborhoods…. However, under that calm exterior a culture war has been growing for over one year. As defined here, “culture war” is “A political struggle caused by conflict between sets of social beliefs and cultural values.”
Many Valley residents first became aware of the conflict thanks to a number of provocatively-worded signs such as: “Botetourt Libraries do not protect Children’s Innocence.”
The dispute essentially has two camps. On one side is a growing, grassroots network of residents: Botetourt Residents Against Child Exploitation, or BRACE…opposed to obscene and age-inappropriate materials in the children’s sections in their taxpayer-funded public libraries. On the other side is County Library Director Julie Phillips and the governmental hierarchy as represented by County spokeswoman Tiffany Bradbury.
The five-member, all Republican Board of Supervisors (BOS) appears to have flip-flopped through the controversy, at times either being silent, or initially supporting BRACE, or later supporting the library policies. The Roanoke Star reached out to the Board of Supervisors, Library Director Phillips and BRACE. No response was ever received from any of the Supervisors. However, Botetourt County spokeswoman Tiffany Bradbury, Library Director Phillips, and two BRACE leaders including Charles Ruhl did respond.
A detailed timeline as provided by BRACE leader Ruhl can be found here.
It began with a DVD Cover
In December 2022, a female Botetourt resident who wishes to remain anonymous was in the Fincastle library and saw near the children’s section an R-rated DVD cover with a close-up, behind view of two (clothed) men grasping each others’ buttocks. One review of that DVD claims it “contains sex, nudity, people with multiple sexual partners, orgies, profanity, and some reviewers call it ‘soft porn.'”
Realizing the inappropriateness of both the DVD’s image and location, that resident shared her concerns with a librarian on duty. At that point, had the staff member simply showed sensitivity and used de-escalation techniques, the issue likely would have been quietly and quickly resolved.
However, instead of her concerns being taken seriously, she was given some talking points from the American Library Association (ALA) that Botetourt libraries “have to offer this [fiction] material for information and enlightenment.”
In a Feb. 5, 2024 email recounting that event, that resident wrote: “The Library Director’s comment was that it was far enough away from the children’s section, and when I said it was close enough for children to see it, she replied, ‘at least they weren’t naked.’ Too bad I didn’t record that arrogant remark.”
Undeterred, the library patron chose to take her concerns to her elected officials, the Botetourt County Board of Supervisors at their January 2023 meeting, and thus the public controversy and the group BRACE were born. To help educate the public, the group launched a website WeAreBRACE.org.
By March and April, she was joined by Charles and Lucy Ruhl who submitted requests to Library Director Phillips to review and remove 60-some books and DVDs they viewed as objectionable for a childhood audience. Using the same form letter, library leaders denied all requests. Showing growing alarm, four residents spoke at the Supervisors’ March meeting against obscenity aimed at children.
Library leaders have consistently claimed no materials need to be removed. However, in April the Ruhls submitted a letter to the Fincastle Herald including a quotation and description of images from books allegedly for ages 5-12. The Fincastle newspaper refused to print it, citing, “the nature of the letter is too graphic for our younger readers.”
It’s not clear why such content is deemed appropriate for the children’s section of the library but not suitable for a newspaper to print.
By May, tensions had risen to where Lisa Varga, the Executive Director of the Virginia Library Association, was invited to speak at a Library Board meeting. Varga implied no books can be removed because that would be “viewpoint discrimination.”
However, Varga’s claim is disputable because the Botetourt Supervisors and Director Phillips have been practicing “viewpoint discrimination” against BRACE by at times denying or ignoring their concerns.
Pressing the point, BRACE member Charles Ruhl asked Varga if he wrote a book on how to commit suicide, would it be put on a shelf? Outrageously, Varga claimed, if the book was from a “reputable” publisher and had a starred review, yes, a “how-to” book on killing oneself would be put into circulation.
One Botetourt Supervisor Turns Physical
Much of the running dispute has invoked the First Amendment, with library supporters defending “free speech” and painting BRACE as “anti-1A” book banners.
However, on June 7, BRACE member Danny Goad had his guaranteed, First Amendment rights such as “freedom of speech, the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” threatened. Standing near the Bonsack Food Lion at the corner of 460 and Laymantown Road, Goad was holding a sign claiming then-Supervisor Billy Martin (R-Blue Ridge) was allowing porn in the libraries. (Martin had earlier expressed support for BRACE but claimed he had no authority over library content.)
According to Goad, Martin drove up and approached him in a threatening manner. Seeking to defuse the situation, Goad kept saying, “Billy, don’t do this, you’re gonna get in big trouble!” and “You’re gonna get arrested if you continue!” However, Martin put his hands on Goad and, according to Goad, pulled items from his pocket.
Goad reported this incident to the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Department, and Martin was later charged with assault. However, the Botetourt County Commonwealth’s Attorney recused himself and Roanoke City’s Don Caldwell took the case. At trial, Caldwell asked the judge to drop all charges and when Goad tried to speak up, the judge refused him.
“I was disappointed that an elected official would behave like that, and I was really shocked that they chose not to prosecute,” Goad explained.
However, Goad and Blue Ridge voters had the last word as later that month, Martin lost the Republican primary for re-election to Walter Michael and has since been replaced as Supervisor. (Ironically, years earlier Goad had helped Martin win his first run for Board of Supervisors.)
(In a Feb. 6, 2024 email, the founder of BRACE wrote, “Please note that the new Blue Ridge Supervisor, Walt Michael, is not involved in this controversy and we know him to be an upstanding man.”)
After the June 2023 Board meeting, Buchanan District Supervisor Amy White claimed there was nothing wrong with the materials in question and, instead of listening to residents’ concerns, actually criticized them for not “letting go” of the problem.
For those inhabitants who thought Botetourt residence meant they would have more conservative leadership, Ruhl claims: “The three “old” supervisors [Steve Clinton, Mac Scothorn, Amy White] have proven themselves to not be fiscally or socially conservative but to be elected in Botetourt County you have to be a Republican in name.”
Botetourt Official Responses
In a series of email exchanges, Spokeswoman Bradbury and Director Phillips stated their positions and answered some questions.
In a Dec. 21 email, Bradbury explained: “Public libraries are constitutionally obligated to serve the interests and needs of all members of their communities and may not limit offerings to some content to the exclusion of other content. Every public library collection contains a broad range of materials, subjects, and viewpoints to serve the entire community. The materials in the library reflect the broad spectrum of human knowledge and Botetourt community needs and interests. Librarians are happy to assist any patron in finding materials that suit their individual or family needs, criteria, and values.”
Bradbury also pointed out a BOS resolution from July 17, 2023 supporting the library system and its current policies plus the current policy that any child under 13 must be accompanied by a parent or other adult over 18.
As for the R-rated DVD near the children’s area, on Dec. 16 Phillips emailed: “Our facilities are small, but we do the best we can with the space we have. At the Fincastle Library where the complaint originated, there is no separate children’s room, which means that some adult sections are located in adjacent areas.”
In a Dec. 26 email, Director Phillips claimed that demand for gender dysphoric content “(for all ages) increased over 400% between 2020 and 2022. Citizens who find certain materials objectionable have the freedom not to use them, but they do not have the right to prohibit or restrict access to other taxpayers who do want them.”
In a Jan. 12 email, Phillips asserted offensive materials cannot be found in Botetourt libraries because “That would be inconsistent with our policies and practices.” Plus, they do not display “Materials that are partisan, sectarian, prurient or that promote hatred and/or violence.”
Phillips added: As an aside, Botetourt County Library does not collect pornography or obscenity in any form, for any demographic – so there is no such material available for display. “While some might use these terms subjectively to describe content that they find objectionable or inappropriate, County libraries have multiple checkpoints to ensure that no actual pornographic, pedophilic, or obscene material makes its way into our library collection, including the youth collection.”
The Roanoke Star in a Jan. 17 email asked Phillips: “The fact that you do not allow such materials as above, is in fact a kind of discrimination, a judgement call. In other words, the phrase ‘we prohibit materials x, y, and z’ is a kind of discrimination. How would you explain that inconsistency?”
Moreover, as seen on this explicit site (discretion advised), BRACE shows a small sampling of materials targeting children currently available in Botetourt libraries, either in physical books or by eBook.
“Around the corner, in the changing room that is connected, sits a girl getting dressed. Please explain to our readers how that is not pedophilic, or obscene.”
Even though the books in question feature cartoon illustrations that give the appearance of being child-related, some of the topics they positively promote include public nudity, pornography, self-pleasure, sex changes, detailed illustrations of genitals, vaginal and anal intercourse, etc.
On Jan. 17 Bradbury responded with “Our County attorney has researched all titles submitted for formal review through our Reconsideration Policy, as well as some other key titles (such as your example) that have come up in public comment. None of them have been ruled as obscene by any court in the U.S., nor would they qualify as obscene based on the Miller Test and interpretations by courts to date. (…) I think we have answered your questions fully,” although several questions were left unanswered.
One Botetourt resident and parent who wishes to remain anonymous, when asked about the controversial sexual and gender-dysphoric books in the children’s collections, responded, “I’ve definitely seen this around. I went and checked out the list and it’s appalling. Absolutely unconscionable.”
BRACE leader Charles Ruhl stated his community’s resolve last December: “This is not over.”
1953 “Freedom to Read” Statement (which after the government-Big Tech-Big Media mass censorship of the past few years is probably more important now than ever)
Updated 1:03 pm Feb. 6, 2024
Corrected Feb. 7, 2024. The original story reported Danny Goad reported the assault to the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office, but that was actually the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office. The Roanoke Star regrets the error.