Wyoming prosecutors consider criminal charges against librarians for circulating controversial books

On Oct. 1, 2021, public uproar over books on the shelves related to sex and LGBTQ+ themes led prosecutors in Gillette, Wyoming, to consider filing criminal charges against the staff at a local public library for allegedly distributing obscene material to minors. 

Key Players

Campbell County Public Library said that between August and September 2021 it received 35 complaints about 18 books in its collection. Gillette, where the library is located, is a conservative community of about 33,000 people, as well as a hub for coal mining.   

Susan Sisti, the pastor of the Open Door Church in Gillette, compiled a list of the controversial books, calling them “absolutely appalling.” Hugh and Susan Bennett filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office over the listed books, accusing the library of violating state child-sex laws.

County Attorney Mitchell Damsky, the prosecutor who weighed criminal charges against the librarians, argued that the dispute might have been resolved had the books been moved to the adult section of the library.

Further Details

On July 13, 2021, the library came under fire for a planned performance featuring a transgender magician, which was canceled following threats directed at library staff and the magician. 

By September 2021, the Campbell County Public Library said it had received 35 complaints regarding books that community members deemed “inappropriate” for children, according to The Sheridan Press.   

Sisti’s list included “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson; “How Do You Make a Baby,” by Anna Fiske; “Doing It,” by Hannah Witton; “Sex is a Funny Word,” by Corey Silverberg; and “Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy,” by Andrew P. Smiler. 

According to 4CBS Denver, the Bennetts’ complaint to the sheriff’s office alleged that the five books on Sisti’s list might have violated state child-sex laws. According to Gillette News Record, Sheriff Scott Matheny said the criminal charges pertain to “offering for dissemination obscene material.” After reviewing the complaint, sheriff’s officials referred the case to prosecutors. 

According to Terri Lesley, the library’s executive director, librarians reviewed the complaint regarding “This Book is Gay” and decided it belonged in the teen room. 

Meanwhile, Damsky announced plans to seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the case before deciding whether criminal charges should be pursued against the librarians for allegedly stocking books that could be considered obscene in the children’s and teenagers’ sections of the library.  

In response to the rising public pressure against the librarians, the LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality offered its support for the library to keep the books where they were and said it is up to parents to determine whether and when their children should have access to such books, according to The Associated Press.

“Maybe the answer is never,” said Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality. “If it’s never, that’s fine. But do you get to make that choice for other families?”


Wyoming Equality sides with library

Wyoming Equality spoke with local leaders to calm tensions and allow the library to operate without the risk of legal action and threats from members of the community, according to AP

“It seemed like there was some kind of opportunity to put the brake on this and we can talk to each other,” Burlingame said after the meeting. “It seems like the train has jumped the tracks.”

On Oct. 18, 2021, the Campbell County Board of Commissioners announced it was no longer allowing public comment about the library during its meetings, according to Cowboy State Daily

No charges filed, prosecutor says case is groundless

The Weston County Attorney’s office in Newcastle, 77 miles away,  took over the case so that the Campbell County Attorney could avoid a conflict of interest that might arise if it investigated one of its own departments. 

On Oct. 28, 2021, according to Gillette News Record, the Weston County Attorney’s Office decided to not pursue criminal charges against the library staff. “…(A)fter review of the subject books and applicable law,” said attorney Michael Stulken, “our office has concluded that those who presented these books for public dissemination, viewing, and consumption should not be subject to criminal prosecution.”

Stulken said that the legal question centered around whether the books encouraged people under 14 years old to engage in “sexual intrusion” by having an individual “attempt to obtain or engage in sexual arousal, gratification, or abuse with another individual directly.” 

For a “sexual intrusion” prosecution to be considered, the books would first have to meet a set of standards to qualify as “obscene.” Additionally, the law would not apply to “public library activities.” On Oct. 29, 2021, the Gillette News Record reported that the library had decided to keep “This Book Is Gay” in the teen section.