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
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.