Jurisprudence

Angry Right-Wing Moms Are Trying to Have Librarians Arrested by “Constitutional Sheriffs”

Pippin wearing a "Moms for Liberty" shirt and placing her hands over stacks of books.
Jennifer Pippin, president of the Indian River County chapter of Moms for Liberty, helped launch a criminal investigation of her local school library, seeking to criminalize Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, among other books. Giorgio Viera/Getty Images

In March, special counsel to the sheriff of Hamilton County, Tennessee, Coty Wamp, was campaigning for district attorney when she met with a group of parents calling themselves Moms for Liberty. Wamp said afterwards that she had facilitated a meeting between the “parents’ rights” group and the sheriff’s office because she thought law enforcement could help the group in its goal of banning books. “I think that there’s going to come a time with some of these books where it crosses a criminal line,” Wamp said. “It’s called contributing to the delinquency of a minor.” Wamp won that promotion to district attorney and was one of the earliest law enforcement figures to begin to establish a frightening new alliance between far-right sheriff’s offices and the radical right-wing parent’s group seeking to upend America’s educational system.

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After Wamp’s meeting, she did not shy away from the possibility of filing charges for “criminal” books, although she later told Jezebel that she did not intend to suggest she was going to go about arresting librarians. Whatever her actual intentions, the alliance Wamp sought to foster is a dangerous one and one that is spreading.

Across the country, members of Mothers for Liberty, a far-right group focused on banning library books and whitewashing school curricula, have appealed to sheriffs as allies in these goals. Much like the partnerships between sheriffs and militia members, or sheriffs and election deniers, this alliance is another example of how sheriffs have become the arm of the law willing to enforce the radical agenda of the far-right. It also shows how determined groups like M4L are to be seen as having legal legitimacy—and how willing sheriffs are to provide it.

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I have spent the past few years reporting on far-right sheriffs and their allies and confidants. One notable change since 2020 has been the increasing number of women who identify with the politics of far-right groups like the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. While most people associate groups like CSPOA with hyper-masculine-fueled violence, women are often key facilitators between these groups and voters.

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Much of this alliance emerged during the pandemic, when far-right parent groups opposed masking in schools. On forums like Facebook, these parents, mostly mothers, passed around information about the so-called constitutional sheriff movement, citing its members as potential allies. This blossomed into an anti-public-school movement focused on altering classroom curricula to eliminate material about racism, sex, or LGBTQ people; policing classrooms and libraries; eliminating requirements for all forms of vaccines as well as masking for COVID; and pushing parents to embrace home-schooling as an ideal way to escape federal and state government indoctrination.

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While many anti-mask and election conspiracy rallies were filled with men clad in military-style apparel and carrying long guns, women presented a softer side and turned out in equal—if not stronger—numbers, in my observation. During the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association’s “Arise USA Resurrection Tour” last year, the two women founders of Freedom Angels appeared onstage to talk not just about resisting mask and vaccine orders but also about establishing entire communities free from government regulation, like food co-ops and alternative home-schooling. Large public events sponsored by CSPOA drew crowds approaching gender parity.

Moms 4 Liberty—their slogan is “Parents’ Rights” —is just one of these influential women-led groups. It was formed in Florida by Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice after both lost their reelection campaigns for their respective local school boards. Their latest conference theme was “Joyful Warriors,” another example of how far-right women mitigate the toxic masculinity associated with groups like the Oath Keepers, border militias, and the Proud Boys. According to recent reporting by Mother Jones, the group now claims 100,000 members across 38 states.

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While M4L has been accused of various direct actions like harassing local school board officials with emails, calls, and threats, it has lately begun to approach county sheriffs as a way to legitimize its grievances and gain actual traction in criminal courts. Granted, it hasn’t been too successful yet. But these alliances suggest that should it not achieve its goals via democratic means, M4L is perfectly willing to find its own firepower.

One strategy has been to bring criminal complaints to sympathetic sheriffs, which become “sex crime” investigations, further spreading the QAnon-influenced anxieties that children are being recruited or brainwashed by sex predators presenting as progressives. In the spring, Jennifer Pippin, who is an M4L chapter chair, filed a criminal complaint against a school library in Indian River County, Florida, for failing to remove dozens of books flagged by the members as inappropriate. The original list of books for examination included more than 150 titles, and while some were removed, not all of them were. In an email, Pippin told a member of the school board that she was focused on “ALL of the books currently in the libraries that have sex, rape, drugs etc etc in them that need to be removed immediately so they don’t get into the hands of anymore students in our district.” She threatened, “I’m holding all of you accountable.”

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Indian River County Sheriff Eric Flowers—who last year was a Sheriff Fellow at the far-right think tank Claremont Institute—assigned a sergeant to investigate the issue, reviewing emails between an M4L representative and various local officials. There were even annotated pages of the books in question, including sections of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a 2005 novel by Jonathan Safran Foer about a 9-year-old boy whose father is killed in the 9/11 attacks. (The book has been the subject of previous attacks by some parents since it was published.) The pages are annotated with handwritten notes like “sexual encounter” and “masterbation.”

The six-week investigation resulted in a 74-page report, which concluded that “no crime occurred.” Whether patently unconstitutional charges are ultimately filed in cases like these, though, is not the issue. The chilling effect of the threat is.

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That threat is real. In a letter to the school superintendent, Flowers wrote that “the totality of the circumstances do not allow us to make an arrest in this case,” but added, “We do not feel that this content is appropriate for young children even though it does not rise to the level of a crime.” Flowers then recommended “stricter oversight” for children’s books.

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Other sheriffs—especially those in Florida, where M4L began and has garnered support from Gov. Ron DeSantis—have conducted similar investigations into so-called dirty books, and while no criminal charges have resulted thus far, they indicate that going to the sheriff is an accepted strategy. In Flagler County, Florida, another M4L member filed an almost identical complaint to Pippin’s. And in Polk County, Florida, a dark money group called County Citizens Defending Freedom funded a series of complaints about books (under the guise of citizen complaints) to Sheriff Grady Judd, who deemed the material “vile and nasty and inappropriate” but not pornographic. Judd added that the matter was “under review to determine if there will be a criminal investigation” based on additional complaints, which all appear to have stemmed from the same dark money group that produced the initial complaints.

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Sheriff candidates in many counties are also courting M4L members as political allies, appearing alongside them at events, providing legal legitimacy to their fears, and contributing to the spread of misinformation. Sheriff Wayne Ivey of Brevard County, who was recently exposed for potentially trying to bribe political candidates he did not like to exit races and endorse his preferred candidates, has embraced M4L-allied members for school board.

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In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sheriff Vic Regalado did an April speaking event with an M4L county chair in which he supplied background on “applicable laws,” explaining that many criminal laws do not apply to book banning, even things that would “make a normal person puke.” He noted, however, regarding a book of poetry, “If an individual on the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma, were showing this to a child, they would be in cuffs like that”—snapping his fingers—“and they would be prosecuted, but I don’t know that they would be convicted in today’s world.”

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“This is now accepted,” he continued, waving a page around, arguing that a jury would be unlikely to convict because “a lot of parents are apathetic,” and blaming in particular single mothers. He ended by promising to consult with the district attorney about “how we can insert law enforcement into this thing.”

It might seem unusual to have elected law enforcement—especially in a time of much-hyped fears of violent crime and alleged understaffing—insert themselves into whether a book should be in a school library. Sheriffs, as politicians, need not justify the use of their resources, though, whether they are used to solve murders, investigate non-existent election fraud, or thoroughly report out whether Jonathan Safran Foer’s book about 9/11 is too sexy for the youths.

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The alliance between sheriffs and M4L makes further levels of political sense as well. Local police chiefs are unlikely to be allies, as their budgets are scrutinized by city leadership and they tend to be in larger cities. Sheriffs serve longer terms than police chiefs and are politicians at heart, having the ability to deploy time and personnel however they see fit, with little if any oversight. And even if there were oversight, in most states where M4L is active, it has the support of state actors and other powerful politicians. Investigating a school book is both safe, easy, and popular in these jurisdictions, especially compared with solving actual crime.

Finally, sheriffs are a natural extension of the M4L ideology. In a recent survey published by the Marshall Project, a significant number of sheriffs (as well as citizens) said that they fear the loss of the “traditional American way of life” enough to justify violence. This easily translates into helping M4L ban Toni Morrison from school libraries or trying to police how teachers talk about their partners. As of now, the only thing stopping these sheriffs has been the limits of criminal laws and courts. Given the state and national political and legal landscapes, the question is quickly becoming: How much longer will those limits hold?

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