Lafayette library board president removed, but parish could still be on the hook for his actions
Lafayette Library Board of Control President Robert Judge listens to public comment at a Feb. 15, 2023, meeting. (Photo by Travis Gauthier for Louisiana Illuminator)
The Lafayette Parish Library Board of Control president under fire for his ultra conservative agenda and harsh policing of meetings has stepped down from his leadership position, but parish leaders could still be responsible for his actions while in charge.
Robert Judge, president of the board since 2021, resigned from his leadership role Monday after the board illegally fired its library director in executive session last week, according to The Acadiana Advocate.
Judge’s tenure was marked with controversy from the start. Before he joined the board, he was a vocal opponent to LGBTQ+ programming at the library, according to reports in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser. As president, Judge had an LGBTQ+ advocate arrested for speaking out of turn at a meeting and an anti-censorship advocate removed by police.
That removal led to a federal lawsuit against Judge, the library board and parish government on allegations of First Amendment and state Open Meetings Law violations. The illegal firing of the library director has led to another lawsuit against Judge, the board and the parish.
Judge has consistently reigned over chaotic meetings. He has been accused of using police to intimidate speakers and has cut off public commenters when he deems their comments irrelevant. In addition to the arrests and open meetings law concerns, meetings frequently devolve into shouting.
His performance is not indicative of good governance, critics have said.
All of that could finally be catching up to Judge — and the parish government that installed him.
After the anti-censorship advocates filed suit, Lafayette Consolidated Government tried to get out of the case by arguing it does not control library boards.
But on Friday, a judge rejected that claim, ruling parish governments may be held accountable for the actions of their appointees.
Katie Schwartzmann, director of the Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic, is representing the plaintiffs. This ruling has implications for the rest of the state, she said.
“If parish officials appoint members who then violate the First Amendment, the parish taxpayers may be responsible legally and fiscally,” Schwartzmann said. “In this highly politicized and contentious environment, parish councils must take care to appoint library board members who will be good stewards of the public trust and conscientious in following the law.”
Other parish governments have certainly taken an interest in their library boards as local libraries nationwide have become battlegrounds for a moral panic led by ultra-conservative activists.
Across the country, these activists have targeted books, primarily those with LGBTQ+ themes, alleging they are pornographic or otherwise inappropriate for children. Many of the books targeted are children’s books with no sexual content, such as a book on pronouns targeted in St. Tammany Parish, or books that are not shelved in the children’s section, like “Gender Queer,” a semi-autobiographical graphic novel, which is the most challenged-book in the nation.
In Louisiana, officials have taken advantage of this politically salient issue.
Attorney General Jeff Landry, the presumed frontrunner for governor, launched a tip line last year to field concerns about “taxpayer-subsidized sexualization of children” in libraries. A resulting report led to legislation requiring libraries to restrict minors’ access to certain library materials the law describes as sexually explicit.
Landry has waded into the library battle in other ways, including issuing an opinion that parish officials can fire library board members at will. That opinion was used as justification for the firing of a Livingston Parish Library Board member. Debbie Henson, the only member of the board with a degree in library science, was ousted at the request of Parish Councilman Garry Talbert, a candidate for the state legislature, who was upset Henson had not returned some of his calls.
The opinion may also be used as justification if the Lafayette City-Parish council moves to oust Judge. Parish attorneys announced at a court hearing last week the council would discuss removing Judge at a Sept. 5 meeting.
Editor’s note: The Tulane First Amendment Clinic provides legal guidance to the Louisiana Illuminator.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.