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2 librarians were fired after the board mistook an autism symbol for a Pride display. They’re suing.

Books with rainbow binding on shelf
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Two former librarians of the Sterling Free Public Library in Sterling, Kansas have filed a lawsuit claiming they were fired over a June library display featuring a rainbow symbol that was mistaken for a Pride Month display.

The library’s board fired library director Kari Wheeler and assistant librarian Brandy Lancaster on July 5 after library employee Ruth Splitter complained to the board about the display. Lancaster created the display as part of a national summer reading program with the theme of “All Together Now,” The Topeka Capital-Journal reported.

The display featured a rainbow infinity symbol, a logo often used by neurodivergent and autism rights advocates, along with a heart and the words, “We all think differently.” The display also featured a rainbow image of a child in a wheelchair and a quote from Black writer Maya Angelou that said, “In diversity there is beauty and strength.”

The display also 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 the books, only The Color Purple contains any LGBTQ+ content.

On June 22, Splitter, a temporary summer library employee, complained about the display to Lancaster, saying she found the “gay Pride” symbol offensive and going into “an anti-LGBT diatribe” even though Lancaster explained that the infinity symbol represented neurodiversity and autism.

The contentious display at the Sterling Free Public Library in Kansas
screenshot of court documents The contentious display at the Sterling Free Public Library in Kansas

Splitter then complained about the display to Michelle Miller, vice chair of the library board. Miller reportedly told Lancaster that she could get her fellow board members to have Lancaster take down the display.

“I am totally fine with diversity of skin color display, just not represented with rainbow colors,” Miller texted Wheeler, the director, according to the lawsuit. “I do not want any kind of rainbow display especially in this month. We have a conservative town and as a library do not need to make political statements (see Target and Budlight as negative examples). I certainly do not want the library to promote LGBTQ agendas.”

Wheeler removed the display, thinking its removal would just be temporary until the board advised her on how to change it. Instead, two weeks later, the board decided that it had lost confidence in Wheeler and Lancaster and voted to fire them.

Now, Wheeler and Lancaster — who are both neurodivergent — and two other library patrons are suing the Sterling Free Public Library, the library’s board, the city, and its mayor for allegedly violating their constitutional rights to free speech, due process, and equal protection and for violating the Kansas Open Records Act, a law that allows the public to view and copy records maintained by public entities.

The lawsuit argues that the city’s residents “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.” It also alleges that the board had previously objected to buying a book featuring a nonbinary teenage character and to sponsoring a city 4th of July parade because one of the floats advertised a Pride event.

The lawsuit seeks the former employees’ lost and future wages, compensatory damages, and an unspecified injunctive relief.

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