Come for the White Supremacy, Stay for the Meeting Room Guidelines

I was so glad to see my friend Monique comment about library meeting room guidelines, because I know she has more experience in this area than I do.  I’d like to continue this discussion, and I appreciate the support of readers who agree and disagree with me on this important topic.

Disruptive meetings and public forum

Monique writes:

Meetings that are likely to disrupt the peaceful operation of the library, and, especially, meetings that are likely to invite counter-protests, and then to require police protection, should be scrutinized.

There are all sorts of groups that might inspire protest.

Let’s say the NAACP scheduled a meeting at the library — because they have done so in the past, and I certainly hope they will again — and let’s say a group like NEWP had announced intentions to protest their meeting.

If there were a threat of violence against the NAACP, we wouldn’t be talking about not allowing them to meet.

If members of the NAACP were attacked in the library, we would be horrified that the library was aware the meeting took place and wasn’t appropriately prepared for a threat of violence.  We would be asking why no one has been arrested or charged with assault.

Many of us — myself included — have a natural sympathy for the NAACP and a natural disgust for NEWP.

Some of us might even feel that there is one thing separating the NAACP and NEWP; that is, the infamous Youtube video.  The city legal department ruled that because the video was related to a specific meeting that NEWP could only be barred temporarily, not permanently.

At present, the Worcester Public Library has what those with brighter legal minds than I would call a “public forum.”

There have been court cases that have discussed library meeting rooms and public forums in depth, most notably Concerned Women for America (CWA) vs. Lafayette County and Pfeifer vs. West Allis.  While those cases are about a political group and a religious group, they are both clear that once you establish a public forum, it’s very difficult to restrict the (non-commercial) groups who can use meeting rooms.

Now, IANAL, but the decision in CWA vs. Lafayette says “There is no evidence that CWA’s meeting would disrupt or interfere with the general use of the library.  Should the contrary prove to be true, library officials may respond by imposing reasonable time, place or manner restrictions on access to the auditorium, provided any regulations are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech.”

And this is precisely what has happened at other libraries with white supremacist groups.

A decade ago, the Bloomington, Illinois, public library was facing regular meetings that would feature Matthew Hale.  They were able to restrict how often he and his group met, but not to completely bar him from meeting.  The Schaumburg (Ill.) District Township Library allowed that group to meet after the library closed for the day, which seems to be consistent with the CWA vs. Lafayette decision.  (Hale had previously sued that library after they barred him from meeting there.)

Question for those who know more about this: it seems that if you have a public forum but have security concerns that you can request that the group meet when there are no patrons in the library.  Does the library then charge the group for the cost of being open after hours?

My understanding is that the library’s Materials Committee will be discussing whether or not to continue to have a public forum at the library.  They may not use those terms, but that’s essentially what part of the discussion will be.

Is meeting space part of the library’s mission?

Which brings me to another part of the comment from Monique:

The primary job of the library is to provide and to promote library service. The provision of public meeting space is, in my opinion, secondary to the library’s mission.

I know some folks are going to tell me that the ALA is not a binding organization and can only offer guidelines, but Part 6 of the Library Bill of Rights is “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.”

The Worcester Public Library’s main branch was extensively renovated a decade ago, and that branch includes two large meeting rooms on the main floor.  So I think we’re safely within Part 6 of the Library Bill of Rights, and I think at this point we’re providing meeting rooms as “part of a program of service.” 

Meeting rooms are also within the library’s vision statement (“The Worcester Public Library will be a welcoming destination and the leading provider of resources to inform, enlighten and enrich our diverse community.”) and mission statement (“The Worcester Public Library provides free information and services that promote lifelong learning and personal enrichment. In all its operations, the library strives to eliminate barriers to the pursuit of ideas.”)

There are likely ways of forming our meeting room policy so that we exclude white supremacist groups.  According to the ALA, a “publicly supported library may limit use of its meeting rooms to strictly ‘library-related’ activities, provided that the limitation is clearly circumscribed and is viewpoint neutral.”

In the FY2012 budget, we are told that there are just 103 children’s programs that are projected to be held at the library (down from 463 in FY2011) and 62 YA and adult programs projected (down from 247).  If we restrict our meeting rooms to just library-related events, we will have a very short calendar of events indeed.

I think that we can find a way to ensure a continuation of our public forum without endangering people’s safety.  Frankly, I don’t have much hope for our democracy if we cannot find a way for people to express their views, however distasteful, without the threat of physical violence.

And I guess that’s what I want in a discussion about library meeting rooms.  It shouldn’t be about how to keep those nasty white-power guys out of the library, or when we should tell a disruptive group to move along because we can’t protect them.  It should be about how we can continue to make the library a place of free — and safe — exchange of ideas.

As the ALA’s Freedom to Read Statement says — “Freedom is no freedom if it is accorded only to the accepted and the inoffensive.”

I encourage everyone with an opinion to be at the library next Wednesday, August 24, when we will be able to express our opinions about how to have a safe, public forum. 

We shouldn’t have to sacrifice one for the other.


5 thoughts on “Come for the White Supremacy, Stay for the Meeting Room Guidelines

  1. Nicole – do you know if the library generally charges groups a fee for use of the meeting space? In some communities, there is a fee for the use of the facility which also includes custodial services. It’s reasonable for the library to recoup its costs, whether the meeting is during regular hours or not.

    • Nicole says:

      I realized I could have answered my own question if I just read the existing meeting room guidelines!

      The library does not charge a fee unless the meeting occurs after normal business hours. The second page of the linked document covers the fee schedule (which isn’t outrageous — pretty much on par with what you’d pay at Nu Cafe).

      I’ve contacted the ALA to see if they have any documentation on what other libraries have done in cases where there might be a disruptive group or protest. I’m not optimistic that I’ll hear back, but I think there’s enough precedent with other jurisdictions where we could retain a public forum with minimal change to the meeting room policy.

      • Monique Lemaire says:

        I read the cases you provided and agree that if a library is a public forum, it may not prohibit a group from using meeting space based on the content of the group’s speech. The library may, however, regulate the time, place, and manner of the speech. What comes to mind is the image of a librarian (always female) holding a finger to her lips and saying “Sshhhhh”.

        It is permitted, as far as I’ve read, to stipulate that groups meet after hours if the meetings pose a threat to the customary operation of the library, or to the safety of library staff/patrons. It also is permitted, as far as I can determine, to require a security deposit to cover damages and/or the costs of custodial services, security, and extra personnel. I’m not sure how many Massachusetts public libraries require payment for the use of meeting space. My impression (there hasn’t been enough time to do thorough research), is that those that require payment distinguish between not-for-profit and for-profit organizations.

        Many, but not all, public libraries are public forums. Some libraries, for example, have no meeting space. Others restrict meeting room use to library events. I haven’t researched extensively, but I have the impression that many public libraries “bill” themselves as a community center and invite public use of the space, not only because of a sincere mission to serve the public, but also because being perceived as a community center, rather than “merely” as a place to check out books, CDs, and DVDs, use the Internet, and conduct research, helps at budget time.

        The meeting room policy of the Boston Public Library states that the provision of meeting room space is not the primary mission of the library. The Springfield (MA) policy says that meeting rooms may not be used in a way that materially interferes with the operation of the library.

        Sample meeting room policies of smaller libraries are available at the web site of the “Massachusetts Library System (MLS) that provides services to 1,700 Massachusetts libraries of all types and sizes throughout the Commonwealth. MLS was established in 2010 to consolidate the services of six former regional library systems”:

        As to your comment that no one would talk about prohibiting the NAACP from meeting at a public library, even if such a meeting might provoke a violent response, that may be true. Wouldn’t that be a judgment based on the content of the speech of the NAACP? Under the various meeting room guidelines I have seen, it would not be prohibited to schedule such a meeting only after hours.

        My introduction to library meeting room policies was an article about the Wakefield Public Library, complete with photo of riot police, in MBLC Notes, volume 21, January/February 2002.

        • Nicole says:

          I’ll attempt a fuller response later, but for those interested, here’s the revised Wakefield Public Library meeting room policy. Relevant passage:
          The Board of Library Trustees and the library staff reserve the right to reject a reservation request if the anticipated meeting is likely to be unreasonably disruptive to regular library functions, too large for the applicable room capacity, disorderly, dangerous to persons or property, or in any other way inconsistent with or in contravention of any of the terms and conditions of this policy. In determining whether such a likelihood exists, the Board of Library Trustees and/or the library staff may take into consideration the contents of the application form, the history of the group’s meeting room use in the library, the history of the group’s use of meeting facilities elsewhere, and such other information as they may deem appropriate.

          The Board of Library Trustees reserves the right to determine, in its reasonable discretion, whether any proposed use of a meeting room will require a police detail or other extraordinary police protection, and if so the anticipated cost thereof. In making this determination, the Board of Library Trustees may take into consideration the contents of the application form, the history of the group’s meeting room use in the library, the history of the group’s use of meeting facilities elsewhere, and such other information as such Board may deem appropriate, and may consult with the Chief of Police or his designee. If the Board of Library Trustees determines that such police protection will be reasonably necessary, the group seeking to reserve the use of a meeting room shall be required, as a condition of such reservation, to pay to the Board of Library Trustees by such date in advance of the meeting as the Board of Library Trustees reasonably sets, the anticipated cost of such police protection, and such sum shall be applied thereto, with any surplus being returned to the group after the meeting. The group shall be liable to the Board of Library Trustees and/or the Town of Wakefield for any deficiency.

          • Nicole says:

            To Monique’s points: I think the question being posed right now is whether the WPL would continue to be a public forum. That is, there are groups that are actively looking to ban other groups (NEWP, for example) from using library facilities. So a lot of my hostility and response is really to those groups.

            It seems to me that the Wakefield situation is extremely close to Worcester’s, and I like their solution to the problem.

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