Amanda Jones found a death threat in her email on a Sunday morning, almost a month after she had spoken at a public library against censorship.
In July, Jones, who heads the board of the Louisiana Association for School Librarians, spoke up against censorship and book bans, specifically books about LGBTQ people and people of color, at her local public library in Livingston Parish, La. She endured dozens of Facebook posts and comments suggesting she was a pedophile, a groomer, and accusing her of pushing pornography on children.
But none of those messages from the local groups scared her as much as the death threat from a man in Texas, about four hours away from where she lived in Louisiana.
“It was pretty explicit in the ways that he was going to kill me,” Jones said. “I was actually petrified.”
The next day, Jones drove to the school where she works as a school librarian and as she was going to get out of her car, saw a man she didn’t recognize walking around in the parking lot. She sat in her car for 10 minutes, afraid to leave. Eventually, she called her principal and asked him to check if he recognized the man. She only left her car when she found out it was a maintenance worker.
Now, Jones is pushing back, bringing suit against some of the Facebook groups where the harassment against her occurred. This week, a judge dismissed her case, but Jones vowed to appeal.
The librarian’s nightmare started on July 19, when Jones went to the meeting at the public library where she has been a member since 1983 to make her case against censorship of books dealing with LGBTQ themes and topics and books about people of color and racism, which have been common targets of book ban calls across the country.
A PEN America study about school book bans in the 2021-22 academic year said 41 percent of all bans are about books dealing with LGBTQ topics. Forty percent of the books banned have main or secondary characters of color, and 21 percent directly address race and racism.
“Censoring and relocating books and displays is harmful to our community, but will be extremely harmful to our most vulnerable—our children,” she said at the meeting.
In her speech, Jones did not mention any specific titles but talked generally about censorship and book banning. She was among 20 or so people that spoke against book bans.
On July 21, a Facebook group called Citizens For a New Louisiana operated by defendant Michael Lunsford posted a picture of Jones with the caption “Why is she fighting so hard to keep sexually erotic and pornographic materials in the kid’s section?”
Lunsford said he was also at the meeting and made a public comment.
On the same day, another group called Bayou State of Mind, run by defendant Ryan Thames, posted a meme with Jones’ picture which said, “After advocating teaching anal sex to 11-year-olds, I had to change my name on Facebook.” Through the post, Thames revealed the full name Jones used on Facebook (which was not her legal name) and her school district.
After weeks of Facebook posts by the local groups against her, Jones said she is now harassed by people on Twitter and Facebook that don’t even live in Louisiana. Her complaints to the sheriff’s office against the Facebook groups amounted to nothing, but she said the police are working on extraditing the Texas man who sent her the death threat. The Livingston Parish Sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
‘It’s not just happening to me’
In a rare pushback against online defamation that some teachers and librarians have been subjected to since book ban efforts escalated, Jones filed a lawsuit against the Facebook groups Citizens For a New Louisiana and Bayou State of Mind, as well as Lunsford and Thames. She alleged that the groups have been defaming her for weeks online, saying they damaged her personal and professional reputation. Because of the groups, she said, she’s received threats of violence and even the death threat. She sought damages, a restraining order against the defendants, and an injunction prohibiting them from posting about her online.
“It’s not just happening to me, it’s happened to tons of educators across the United States,” she said. “I do really encourage people when this happens to make sure they build their support system and weigh the pros and cons of speaking out. Sometimes in your communities and where you live, you have to do what’s safest for you.”
After the preliminary injunction hearing was rescheduled twice, the judge dismissed the lawsuit per the defendants’ request on Wednesday, saying that Jones was a “limited public official” because of her position with the librarians’ group and that the comments made against Jones were not defamatory and were just opinions. Jones said the verdict was disappointing, but she is planning to appeal.
The defendants said their argument was about the content of the books in the library and Jones had opened herself up to criticism because she decided to speak at the meeting.
“Miss Jones decided she wanted to interject herself into this library board controversy, and she’s trying to persuade everybody that her opinion is right,” Thames’ attorney, Joseph Long, said. “Well, when you do that, of course, you’re going to get criticism and you’re going to get support. And if you can’t handle the criticism without having to file a lawsuit, you probably shouldn’t get in the middle of the fray.”
Jones also alleged in the lawsuit that she was called a groomer online, which means an adult who fosters a relationship with a minor, often with the intention of sexual abuse. The term has been coopted by the right to insult people advocating for LGBTQ issues. Long said Jones was called a groomer because “she was advocating facts for young children.”
“And whether she was or whether she was not [a groomer]—I mean, I don’t think she was—but one would argue if you advocate teaching sex to young children, that is a technique that groomers use to sexually abuse children,” added Long, who said he did not make that allegation himself.
Defendants argue sexual content is the issue
Long and Lunsford also said that the case was not about books containing references to LGBTQ characters or dealing with topics of sexuality.
“It was just sexual content, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual, it is not appropriate for 11- or 12-year-olds,” Long said. “That was a red herring early on, but that never came up in the hearing at all.”
For his part, Lunsford said he never called Jones a pedophile or a groomer, or accused her of pushing sexually explicit content.
“We simply asked questions of why is this material in the library? Why are these people fighting so hard to keep it in?” he said.
He said he had also received threats to his life for speaking against Jones.
“People on the fringe of both sides get a little carried away,” he said. “It’s not appropriate, people shouldn’t do it. Engage on the issue, whether this is appropriate for children or isn’t it.”
Citizens for a New Louisiana hasn’t issued any book challenges relating to books about “that lifestyle,” Lunsford said, referring to the LGBTQ people. He said his organization’s issue is focused on books such as the graphic novel, Let’s Talk about It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human.
The explicit images in the graphic novel are inappropriate for children and that’s what his organization objects to, he said.
But the stress of weeks of online harassment has caught up with Jones. The defendants have contacted her family members through social media, she said, and people have complained about her to both the Louisiana School Library Association, of which she is president, and to her school district.
She hasn’t been able to focus at work and is suffering physical effects. Jones said starting in January, she’s going to take a sabbatical from work for the spring semester. But Jones said even knowing what happened, she still would choose to speak up against censorship the way she did at that public meeting in July.
“Why not me? Because somebody’s got to do it,” she said, “Because these people, they don’t stop. And I’m just really sick of it.”
Jones’ friend Kim Howell, who was the former president of the state school librarians’ association, said if this had happened to her, she would’ve left her job. She said she admired Jones for standing up to the defendants and fighting against censorship.
Howell and her colleagues at the association have been a major support system for Jones throughout this experience, Jones said, from financially contributing to the GoFundMe that allowed her to hire the attorney to offering emotional support.
“It was just devastating to watch my friend be attacked personally and these lies told about her,” Howell said. “Amanda’s got moxie. She’s making a difference and I’m 100 percent behind her.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2022 edition of Education Week as A School Librarian Pushes Back on Censorship and Gets Death Threats and Online Harassment