Embattled Washington library wins lawsuit, won't shut down after book-ban fight


The only library in tiny Columbia County will survive.

The Dayton library — which was on the verge of becoming the first library in the country to shutter over disputes about what books it offers — will remain open after a Columbia County court Wednesday barred an initiative to close the library from appearing on the November ballot.

A local political action committee last month sued Columbia County and the leader of the movement trying to shut down the library, arguing the planned vote on the library's future would exceed the county's initiative powers, unconstitutionally disenfranchise county residents who pay taxes but wouldn't get to vote and that the petition process was "plagued by fraud."

Columbia County Superior Court Commissioner Julie Karl ruled for the library's supporters Wednesday, barring the county from placing the initiative on the November ballot. The initiative, Karl said from the bench, reading from prepared notes before a packed courtroom, was unconstitutional, procedurally invalid and the signature gathering was marred by "potential criminal acts."

Because the library was established as a rural library district, only voters in unincorporated areas of the county would have been eligible to vote. That would exclude Dayton, where two-thirds of the county's voters live, even though Dayton residents pay taxes to fund the library.

"The biggest point, I think though, is it doesn't make sense to have people who live in the county be the only ones who vote on something that so much affects citizens of the city," Karl said. "We did away with taxation without representation a long time ago."

Karl also spoke passionately about the value the library provides to the community, saying its closure would be "an irreparable loss."

"The city and county would lose a valuable resource that would disproportionately affect the poorest members of this community that depend on this library as a meeting place, a safe place and the only place to use a computer," she said. "The library protects the homeless in our community as a warming and cooling center and as a safe and free place for parents to take their children."

While battles over what books are taught in schools and what books are available in libraries have spread across the nation, Dayton would have been the first library to shut down over book disputes, according to the American Library Association.

Elise Severe, one of the plaintiffs and the leader of the PAC, Neighbors United for Progress, said she was "ecstatic" at the ruling.

"So many people were just waiting with bated breath, we're so happy," Severe said. "I know many counties, many states, possibly the nation have been watching this, I think this is a really good step in the right direction.

Severe and Neighbors United for Progress filed the lawsuit against Jessica Ruffcorn, a mother of two and the leader of the movement to shut the library, as well as against the county, the county auditor and the county elections director.

"Are you freaking kidding me right now," Ruffcorn said in a Facebook video earlier this month, after reading a section of the lawsuit. Karl, Ruffcorn said in the video, is "a lib" and "her politics do not align with our politics."

Ruffcorn, in an emailed statement Wednesday, said she disagreed with the ruling and that it took away the voice of county voters.

"We didn't work this hard for change to let it end here like this," she said. "We will continue to fight to protect the children of this community."

Ruffcorn had asked to be dismissed as a defendant, a request that was unopposed. She was represented by the Silent Majority Foundation, of Pasco, a conservative group that has filed lawsuits challenging the state's COVID policies and its ban on AR-15 style guns.

The county and its officials responded that they were following the law and the advice of the state attorney general in good faith in putting the initiative on the ballot and asked the court to instruct them how to proceed.

So nobody substantively opposed the lawsuit's allegations.

"The initiative seeks to punish every single person in Columbia County by shuttering the Library in its entirety and depriving the community of its many vital resources," Neighbors United for Progress, and its two co-plaintiffs, wrote in a court filing. "The loss of the Library would result in a loss of access to information, the loss of history, a decline in public resources, and the loss of one of the most beautiful buildings in the County."

The battle over the library in Dayton, a one-stoplight farming town where wheat prices are displayed on Main Street, has raged for more than a year.

The library's opponents, led by Ruffcorn, objected to the placement of books concerning gender, sexuality and race in the kids and young adult sections of the library. Initially the complaints centered on one book, "What's the T?: The Guide to all Things Trans and/or Nonbinary," but they quickly spread to a dozen others and now well over 100 books.

All the contested books are found in "hundreds, if not thousands of libraries across the country," according to the Washington Libraries Association.

The library's previous director declined to move or remove any of the books, citing First Amendment rights and the rights of individual families to decide for themselves what to read. But he resigned earlier this year, saying he was tired of the battle and was leaving Dayton.

The new director attempted to assuage the library's critics, moving all young adult nonfiction into the adult section and creating a new "parenting" section of books.

It did not work. Ruffcorn led a petition drive to dissolve the Columbia County Rural Library District, as the library is officially known. The drive collected enough signatures to appear on the November ballot.

"This public library is an irretrievably compromised entity, and it needs to be removed from our midst," the voters guide statement against the library would read.

If the initiative passed, all of the  library's books and materials would have been moved to the state library near Olympia and the library's building and other property would return to the city of Dayton, which, prior to the formation of the rural library district, had been unable to fund the library.

"When the initiative's proponents could not rid the library of the handful of books they found objectionable, they instead sought to 'throw the baby out with the bathwater' — and deprive the County and every single one of its residents of all library resources," the plaintiffs wrote.

The lawsuit argued that local initiatives are different than statewide ones and that Columbia County has not authorized legislation by local initiative. It also argues the initiative is administrative rather than legislative and is thus beyond the scope of what is allowed.

The lawsuit argued the initiative would violate the state and federal constitutions by not giving Dayton residents a vote, even though they pay taxes toward the library.

"City residents' significant property rights are affected without a right to vote," the lawsuit said. The law, as applied, "disenfranchises constitutionally qualified voters."

And it alleged there was fraud in the petition process, that signers were told the petition was to "move the books in the library," not to dissolve the library.