A former Gillette librarian is suing three local activists, claiming they conspired to have her fired and defamed her by saying that keeping “inappropriate” books in the library’s children’s section is criminal and that she was distributing pornography.
Terri Lesley on Wednesday filed a 44-page civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for Wyoming against Hugh and Susan Bennett, and their son Kevin Bennett.
The complaint accuses the Bennetts of targeting allies of a protected class (LGBTQ people), of conspiring to violate Lesley’s rights, of defaming Lesley and of inflicting emotional distress upon her.
Lastly, the complaint accuses Hugh and Susan Bennett of misusing the legal process to target Lesley.
The controversy over sexually graphic and LGBTQ-themed books in the Campbell County Public Library System, specifically the Gillette branch, began in 2021 and culminated in the library board firing Lesley on July 28, after Lesley refused to move contested books from the juveniles’ sections to adult sections.
The Bennetts were outspoken against the controversial books and Lesley’s moves to protect them.
“Lesley was in the right for refusing to discriminate in government contracts or remove certain books from the library collection,” Lesley’s complaint alleges, “(but) the Bennetts continued headlong into their vicious smear campaign, knowing full well that their words were laced with falsity.”
Kevin Bennett disputed Lesley’s claims Wednesday in a comment to Cowboy State Daily.
“Advancing the ideas she was in defense of at our library is tantamount to child molestation; you can’t put ideas in kids’ minds like that without damaging them,” said Kevin Bennett. “Just because you’re not physically damaged doesn’t mean you’re not emotionally damaged. That’s what those books were doing and that’s what we were defending against, (though) there’s a political trend to turn a blind eye.”
How It Started
Lesley started working for the Campbell County Public Library System (CCPLS) in 1996 and became executive director in 2013. The Gillette News Record in 2021 named Lesley one of its “Ten Who Made a Difference” for withstanding the library controversy, the complaint says.
According to the legal complaint, community angst against Lesley and the library started in June 2021, when the library published a Facebook post promoting LGBTQ pride month and Rainbow Book Month. The post linked to the Library’s Teen Blog and touted “a few titles you can check out from your library that will connect you with the LGBTQIA+ collection at CCPL.”
Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad questioned whether the county had designated these months. This surprised Lesley, because commissioners “do not typically get involved in CCPL’s daily operations,” though they oversee the budget, says the complaint.
Shelstad emailed Lesley saying he was “disturbed” by the post and believed that “teaching this kind of behavior to minors is up to the parents not the government,” and the post suggested county government was giving special treatment to a certain group.
Lesley countered in her own email, saying Pride Month and Rainbow Book Month are national designations, and the post provides “diverse cultural opportunities for reading, learning and entertainment to all citizens of our community.”
The Campbell County Library Board — which since 2021 has seen almost complete turnover — backed Lesley’s stance at the time.
The Public Meeting
The controversy over Pride Month continued. At a July 7, 2021, public meeting of the County Commission, Hugh Bennett described Pride Month as “immoral,” “perverted,” and an “attack on family,” the complaint says.
“It’s an attack on the basic family structure because the basic family structure is the one thing that’s the strongest that resists government and wars and immorality and losing the will to go on,” said Bennett, the complaint relates. “A lot of this is really subtle and wicked in its intimidation by authority figures of our most vulnerable people in society.”
Kevin Bennett spoke, saying alternate sexual identities “are known to cause suicide and HIV” and that governments that encourage those may be “pedophilic in nature.”
Susan Bennett said the government was encouraging behavior akin to kleptomania and should regain its “moral compass.”
The Bennetts at that time asked commissioners to move certain books out of the children’s and teen collections. These were:
“A Quick and Easy Guide to Queer and Trans Identities” by Mady G and Jules Zuckerberg
“All Out: The No-Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens Throughout the Ages” by Saundra Mitchell
“Music from Another World” by Robin Talley
Other residents piled on, saying the library was helping to demoralize the nation and promote pedophilia, Lesley’s complaint alleges.
Lesley told the commission that the library is a “neutral place” tasked with providing diverse content.
The Magic Show
The library had a kids’ magic show scheduled for July 14, 2021.
Lesley’s complaint says the show was to be a “straightforward magician’s performance” and the magician had no history of presenting inappropriate content.
Shelstad, meanwhile, researched the act and found that the performer was a transgender woman.
“I am not thinking this is a good idea,” wrote Shelstad in an email to Lesley, according to the complaint. “Taxpayer money going to things like this only upsets the tax payers of our County more.”
Lesley wrote back, saying it was strictly a magic show.
The complaint claims that the commissioners and the Bennetts “circulated” the news of the magician’s transgender identity throughout the community, and former State Rep. Scott Clem, R-Gillette, on social media called the act a “transgender magic show” and a “cover to introduce and glorify something more insidious and harmful.”
Library staff began to receive threats, the complaint says. One person reportedly told a staffer, “Cancel the program or else.”
The magician reported having received threats too. At the last minute, the magician cancelled the performance.
Billboards Show Up
At a July 20, 2021, public commission meeting, Kevin and Hugh Bennett criticized Lesley for not warning the community about the performer’s gender identity, the complaint alleges.
The document says that days later, Hugh Bennett authored a column in his business’ print magazine, named “Anybody’s Autos” after his business, accusing Lesley of failing to inform commissioners about the magician’s gender identity and of lying about the reported threats.
Kevin Bennett in August 2021 organized a fairgrounds booth as founder of Wyoming’s chapter of Mass Resistance, an activist group opposing LGBTQ and sexually graphic content in libraries, says the complaint.
Kevin Bennett encouraged people “to sign petitions advocating for the banning of LGBTQ+ themed books and estranging LGBTQ+ community members from the library system,” the complaint alleges.
Electronic billboards funded by Mass Resistance soon appeared throughout Gillette displaying there was “child indoctrination throughout our library” and “inappropriate youth books in the library.”
Tensions in the community grew.
Residents criticized Lesley and the library board that summer, accusing them of corrupting, grooming and indoctrinating children while promoting danger and pedophilia, says the complaint.
At a library board and commission joint meeting Aug. 12, 2021, Lesley discussed the library’s book reconsideration policy and told people how to file challenges.
“Lesley revealed that the library system had not faced any book challenges until they started receiving anti-LGBTQ+ book challenges in 2021,” says the complaint. “During her time as Library Director, none had progressed beyond the manager’s response.”
The Bennetts called for certain books to be removed, the complaint says, adding that Susan Bennett accused Lesley of committing a criminal offense.
A flurry of book challenges ensued. Between August and November 2021, 17 people filed 57 requests for consideration on 29 library books, says the complaint.
Most of these were centered around the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and “included age-appropriate content with that theme,” the lawsuit adds.
The document says none of these requests came from a parent whose child “looked at or checked out any of the challenged books.”
Kevin Bennett challenged “The Babysitter’s Coven” by Kate Williams, saying it features critical race theory, attacks white people, promotes occultism and initiates “self-hatred based on ethnicity.”
Lesley started to review the challenges.
The Bennetts kept coming to commission meetings and speaking out, says the complaint, sometimes implying that Lesley was violating Wyoming’s sex crime laws.
Lesley’s complaint accuses the Bennetts of trying to intimidate her “into complying with their censorship demands.”
“When their efforts continued to fail,” the complaint continues, “the Bennetts intensified their efforts to have Ms. Lesley arrested.”
A Blackmail Claim
On Sept. 29, 2021, Hugh and Susan Bennett went to the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office and formally accused Lesley of disseminating obscenity to children, the complaint says.
The books they claimed comprised felonious behavior were:
“Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy” by Andrew Smiler
“Doing it!: Let’s Talk about Sex, Consent, Virginity, Masturbation, LGBTQ Sex Ed, Contraception, Healthy Relationships, Sex Shaming, Body Image, STIs, Sexual Pleasure” by Hannah Witton
“Sex Is a Funny Word” by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smith
“How Do You Make a Baby” by Anna Fiske
“This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson
Susan Bennett at an Oct. 5, 2021, commissioners’ meeting said that if Lesley had removed the challenged books that summer, she and her husband would not have filed charges, the complaint alleges.
In her filing, Lesley calls this evidence that Bennett was trying to blackmail her by accusing her of a crime.
Blackmail is punishable by up to 10 years in prison in Wyoming.
Lesley’s complaint alleges that the Bennetts used “inflammatory language” to garner support and didn’t actually believe Lesley was promoting “pornography … for simply failing to remove certain books.”
The Prosecutor’s Word
Michael Stulken, Weston County Attorney and special prosecutor on Lesley’s case, reviewed the Bennetts’ criminal complaint and concluded that not only were the books not obscene, but Lesley was protected by the Wyoming obscenity law’s exemption for librarians and educators acting within their duties. Additionally, wrote Stulken, the books may have “scientific value,” which comprises another exemption under the state’s obscenity law.
He authored his decision Oct. 27, 2021, explaining to the community why he would not file charges against Lesley.
“Despite the County Attorney’s clear legal analysis, the Bennetts were undeterred,” says the complaint. It adds: “Hugh Bennett told the press, ‘I’m not going to change my mind because of something a lawyer chooses to do or not do.’”
The October date of Stulken’s decision is a crux in Lesley’s defamation argument. She alleges that after that point at least, the Bennetts should have known that her behavior was not criminal.
“Despite being informed by an authoritative and credible public source that their accusations of criminal conduct were false as a matter of law, the Bennetts persisted” by speaking out, challenging books, discrediting Lesley and calling for her termination, says the complaint.
The library board then turned almost entirely over, with only Charlie Anderson now remaining from the 2021 board.
Sage Bear, the wife of Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, joined the board in 2022. Chuck Butler, Chelsie Collier and Darcy Lyon also joined the board.
Lesley on March 7, 2022, shared with Bear a legal analysis provided by Campbell County Attorney deputy Emily Williams. The analysis said that the current library policy rejected appeals based on people’s personal beliefs, and relocating books “is arguably censorship and therefore a violation of policy and the law,” says the complaint.
Bear turned to Nick Norris of Lubnau Law Firm for a second opinion.
The complaint says Norris advised both against moving the books, and against adding a designation for upholding “community standards” to the library’s mission statement.
Except For Wright
The Bennetts, meanwhile, kept launching book challenges.
Lesley suggested housing the parenting collection on higher shelves to prevent small children from accessing those books in an effort at “compromise,” says the complaint.
The Bennetts kept calling for her resignation, the document adds.
The complaint alleges that Hugh Bennett in an April 17, 2022, meeting warned the county attorney against inaction, implying it would be the same as running “a political campaign based on being porn-friendly to kids.”
One month later, county commissioners decided to cut the $32,600 budget designated for youth programs in the library system. Lesley’s complaint calls this “punishment” for the library’s refusal to move challenged books out of the children’s section.
Kevin Bennett allegedly said the loss of funding was because librarians had “lied in order to push their perspective” and refused to move the books.
By June 20, 2022, commissioners restored children’s program funding to the library system’s branch in the small town of Wright.
Kevin Bennett had pushed for Wright to retain funding because it didn’t have “bad books,” the complaint says.
In late September 2022, Sage Bear allegedly told Denton Knapp, commissioners administrative service director, that she planned to revise the collection development policy and then fire Lesley.
The CCPL Board held a special meeting June 8, 2023, and approved what Lesley’s complaint calls “highly subjective” revisions to the collection development policy.
The board met again July 24. Bear asked Lesley to move “pretty obvious” books — “the egregious stuff” with “sexually explicit” content meant for a more adult audience, using the new weeding process.
Lesley said that would violate the First Amendment.
“Well, if that’s the way you feel then I feel like you should find another job,” Bear said, the complaint relates.
Lesley refused to resign.
The board fired her July 28, with only Charlie Anderson voting against the termination.
The Claims, The Demands
Lesley’s complaint lists six civil claims and various demands. Her claims are:
That all three Bennetts violated the Ku Klux Klan Act by targeting someone aligned with the LGBTQ agenda;
That all three Bennetts conspired to violate Lesley’s rights;
That Hugh and Susan Bennett defamed Lesley by filing a criminal complaint against her when she didn’t comply “with their demands.”
That all three Bennetts defamed Lesley by calling her actions criminal after Stulken announced they weren’t;
That all three Bennetts inflicted emotional distress on Lesley, “recklessly” and intentionally;
That Hugh and Susan Bennett abused the legal process.
Lesley is asking the court to award her:
Declaratory and injunctive relief by declaring the Bennetts’ actions wrongful and stopping them in any way appropriate;
Back pay, front pay and lost benefits compensation as established at trial;
Compensatory damages, including for suffering and anguish;
Punitive damages to punish the Bennetts;
Exemplary damages to make an example of the Bennetts;
Prejudgment and post-judgement interest at the highest lawful rate;
A tax offset;
Attorneys’ fees and costs;
And any other relief that “justice requires.”
Qusair Mohamedbhai, Iris Halpern and Azra Taslimi of Rathod Mohamedbhai LLC, of Denver, Colorado, are representing Lesley in her lawsuit.
Hugh Bennett emailed a statement to Cowboy State Daily Thursday, saying Lesley “refused to follow the library board’s instructions, citing the need to protect the ‘constitutional rights’ of children as her motivation, yet now complains that our exercise of free speech to redress grievances against the government she worked on behalf of has defamed her.”
Bennett called this “ironic.”
“Speaking up to protect our children and grandchildren from exposure to immorality and sexual deviancy by agents of our government is a constitutional right at the heart of the free speech amendment to the constitution,” Bennett continued. He concluded: “If Ms. Leslie is such a die hard proponent of free speech, why isn’t she appreciating the right of the rest of us to free speech?”
Clair McFarland can be reached at Clair@CowboyStateDaily.com.