Many libraries provide meeting rooms for public use. That is, they offer space to community groups in addition to library programs. Who should be allowed to use that space?
Basically, a library can choose whether to make space available and for what purposes. Within those purposes, any group may use it, regardless of their beliefs or affiliations. Some people, unfortunately, just don’t get it.
Such people shouted down the American Library Association’s recent effort to clarify that principle.
The Library Bill of Rights
In 1939 the ALA adopted what it calls the Library Bill of Rights. Its last article states
Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.
It seems straightforward enough, but in 1991, the ALA Council issued a rule interpretation.
Libraries can limit access to their meeting rooms for many reasons. They can, for example, say that their facilities are open “to organizations engaged in educational, cultural, intellectual, or charitable activities” if they want to exclude commercial uses. Whatever restrictions a library adopts, however, must apply equally to all viewpoints and subject matter.
For whatever reason, the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee decided it needed to provide more clarification. Its 2018 rule interpretation includes the following language:
Public libraries are bound by the First Amendment and the associated law governing access to a designated public forum. A publicly funded library is not obligated to provide meeting room space to the public, but if it chooses to do so, it cannot discriminate or deny access based upon the viewpoint of speakers or the content of their speech. This encompasses religious, political, and hate speech.
I don’t understand why the committee thought it needed to issue a new interpretation, or why it thought this language clarified anything. Consider what the ALA and the First Amendment to the US Constitution already stood for:
- The ALA stood against ridiculous and unconstitutional attempts by atheist activists to make publicly funded libraries deny access to religious groups.
- During the McCarthy era, it staunchly upheld the rights of Communists to meet in libraries.
- The Schaumburg, Illinois library lost a court case in 2001 regarding a speech by a white supremacist. (The library did not deny him access, but it scheduled the speech after the library was closed because of public safety concerns. Protests against the same man’s speech at another library had caused a near riot. The presiding judge ruled that scheduling the speech when no one else was at the library compromised the man’s First Amendment Rights.)
In other words, non-discrimination regarding religious, political, and hate speech had long been established in practice and law.
Bigotry in the name of antibigotry
From the reaction to the new statement, you’d think the ALA had carved out a new right to engage in hate speech! And the protestors seemed to think that only white supremacists and other “right wing” groups can commit hate speech.
In fact, the most bigoted and intolerant rhetoric in today’s political discourse comes from progressives.
They’re the ones whose violence at one library caused the Schaumburg library to schedule a controversial speech after hours—to protect patrons who weren’t in the library but not at the speech from another left-wing riot.
Shortly after issuing the new rule interpretation, the angry response caused the ALA to rescind it. It may try again to issue a new interpretation, but for now the 1991 interpretation represents its official policy. That is, it still protects hate speech from all parts of the political spectrum. It just doesn’t use that poisonous phrase.
Whatever the ALA decides as far as how to express itself, we all need to cool off, and dare I say it? Grow up.
If some group you’re a part of meets at the library, go and enjoy the meeting. If some other group you don’t approve of meets in the library, get over it.