Documenting Hate Crimes in Libraries

Challenge Reporting, Hate Crimes

By: Jamie LaRue

Background

For many years now, the Office for Intellectual Freedom has provided two key services. One of them is to track reports of library challenges, where a challenge is a public request to remove or restrict access to some library service. A second service is to provide support to library workers who are dealing with such challenges.

As of December 2016, we have begun to collect information about another kind of incident with free speech implications: hate crimes that take place on library property. Why? Graffiti on library property isn’t new. Nor is it altogether strange that, sometimes, graffiti include what might be called “hate speech,” or derogatory comments that target specific populations. But we began to get reports about an upsurge of these incidents immediately following the 2016 presidential election. In several of these cases, such as the one in Kansas City, the report comes with the observation that “this is the first time this has ever happened here.”

It may be that these incidents do not represent a trend. They may mark a spate of nastiness emboldened by some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and his subsequent election. We may hope that such crimes will quickly go back to pre-election levels. But the sharpness of their rise convinced our staff that we should try to stay on top of the issue.

So this blog post will attempt to say what we’re collecting, and what we will do with the data.

Hate speech versus hate crime

An uncomfortable truth is that hate speech is also free speech. It’s not illegal for people to say stupid, ignorant, or even deliberately hurtful things. When an anti-immigrant group, for instance, books a room at the library according to usual policies, and the speakers make some overtly bigoted remarks about Mexicans, that’s the price we pay for democracy. We acknowledge, however, that such speech has real world consequences, sometimes causing great pain, suffering, and even trauma.

A hate crime, however, is about more than speech. It is about specific criminal behavior. What we’re trying to track falls into two broad categories:

  • Defacement or vandalization of library property in a way that includes language or symbols that target specific groups. This would include racial epithets or swastikas, for instance, as we have seen in Kansas City and Evanston.
  • Harassment or assault. Here the behavior is meant to physically injure, or threaten to injure, people because of their membership in a specific group (typically religious, racial, cultural, sexual, or disability). If someone says, “stop stealing our jobs!” that’s an unpleasant confrontation, but it’s not a hate crime. On the other hand, if someone shouts, “your days are numbered!” that’s a threat. If someone touches, strikes, or might reasonably be construed as getting ready to physically intimidate someone else because that person is a member of one of the diverse groups above, that is a hate crime.

Not all physical altercations, even those involving diverse populations, are in fact based on that cause. People are a querulous species, and we’re not trying to document every case of people behaving badly, or every conflict that might occur between people belonging to different groups. We’re trying to track a specific phenomenon: criminal behavior in libraries that seems to be clearly linked to prejudice.

Report CensorshipReporting

OIF commits to collecting this information at least until the end of 2017. We will report, in this blog and elsewhere, about our findings. Note that our data will continue to fall into two categories: confidential (if the person reporting the incident fears reprisals), and public (where the incident either has already hit the general media, or does not have confidentiality imposed on it by the reporter). Our intent is to share as many details — type of library, location, frequency, targeted group, specific language used — as possible. I suspect that hate crime reports are not as fraught for the reporting institution. But we’ll see. In all likelihood, these reports will come to us from branch managers and supervisors.

As noted by other gatherers of such information, criminal behavior should be reported to the police first. But we do hope you will then notify us.

How? We have this new online form combining all kinds of reporting. You can also send an email to oif@ala.org or call (312) 280-4226.

Support

To be honest, we don’t know yet what support is needed. That’s why we’re gathering data. Too, the expertise people need may not come just from the Office for Intellectual Freedom. But ALA also has deep expertise in other offices: the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services; the Public Programs Office; and of course our various divisions and state library associations. It may well be that we’ll need a more broadly coordinated ALA response. Or, it may be that a troubling trend didn’t have any staying power.

For now, it can’t hurt to look around and get prepared. Thanks for helping us get the word out.

 


Jamie LaRue

Jamie LaRue is the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. Author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, he has given countless keynotes, webinars, and workshops on intellectual freedom, advocacy, building community engagement, and other topics. Prior to his work for OIF, Jamie was a public library director for many years in Douglas County, Colorado. Find him on Twitter @jaslar.

12 comments

  • If this is so egregious an act, interesting the library is refusing to release the video of the suspect citing the code of ethics to protect the patron’s privacy trumping the need to publicly identify this horrible suspect of a “hate crime” in a public building – had the suspect raped or murdered someone in the bathroom after tagging it would the library also have refused to release the video to the media to help identify the suspect?

    Curious will there be a category for FAKE HATE CRIMES/PARTISAN PROVOCATION?

    Singular incidents of rightwing ignorance are occurring and should be addressed, but interesting (if you can actually find one) they deserve to be turned into iconic incidents of intolerance to be repeated ad nauseam on NPR and in HuffPo while these all too numerous accounts of fake hate crimes that have been debunked are ignored by those same outlets… hmmm. Even the Annoyed Librarian had an article recently citing these sort of incidents as “Fake Library News” and while this may be in the category of a real “hate crime” it is comparably an isolated incident when placed side by side with the amount of fake hate crime reports since the election. Shouldn’t filing a false hate crime report itself be hate crime because it was an act perpetrated with implicit bias and malice to incite national tensions?

    Could it just be a case of an individual being an ignorant young idiot? They apparently wrote “Hail President Trump” along with swastikas, last I checked the white nationalists were bemoaning that Trump had picked so many Jewish cabinet members, not to forget his daughter and her husband (from a prominent family of Democrat donors), Trump’s main advisers, are observant Lubavitch Jews. Trump is quite an interesting Nazi surrounding himself with so many Jewish people. Also that Steve Bannon fellow, branded a white nationalist who had so many prolific pro-Israel Jewish journalists working for Breitbart, interesting actions from these supposedly frothing anti-Semitic racists.

    I’m sorry, but, myself, as an Jewish academic librarian, I find this incident highly suspect. While it may have happened, these reports that hate crimes incidents, specifically vandalism and graffiti, have spiked since the election have almost all panned out to be have been hoaxes and lies by Leftists out to provoke and incite a reaction against Trump in the media – feeding into all your own Leftwing confirmation biases: finger pointed at most members of the ALA and religious NPR listeners. Go ahead and brand the website alt-right, but Fakehatecrimes.org has documented these incidents WITH LINKS to mostly “credible” media outlets that followed up on the original report to expose that the victim either made it up or the perpatrator was a Leftwing provacatuer. Of course the big network media or NPR is not interested in following up on these stories of post election racist graffiti or Muslim women being attacked as being falsified. They just want the first report of the incident, subtly implying it is from a Trump supporter, with zero evidence, helps add to the partisan pollution of the information ecosystem.

    What happens if it turns out the people perpetrating these acts of vandalism aren’t white nationalists, which aren’t too synonymous with graffiting libraries, could it be perhaps just maybe be left leaning nihilistic “punks,” who are much more familiar with tagging and graffiti, maybe an activist in “La Raza” or BLM perhaps trying to provoke a reaction? If it was – what then? Since we have a mass of fake incidents similar to this one proven not to be real, is this not an information epidemic that should be addressed. There is a great danger to civic society filing false police reports or lying about a racially charged incident (hands up don’t shoot) thus creating fake news for undiscerning real news outlets. Does that not deserve your attention?

    Don’t cry wolf until you have some evidence there was wolf and not just duplicitous partisan sheep.

    I will bet you all a coca-cola that if the suspect is located it will not be registered Republican or white nationalist.

  • Under many state laws pertaining to library policies, information about patron presence in the library, captured on video, is like information about other kinds of library use. It may only be obtained for legal investigations through such processes as subpoenas. I think that’s a good thing, and I know that in at least the Kansas City case, there is an active investigation.

    No doubt there are fake reports of crimes – of this kind of thing, and many others. So we’ll try to gather and vet the one related to library hate crimes, and also keep track of those things that turn out not to be what was originally reported. So far, the ones reported to us check out. We’re not crying wolf. We’re gathering and investigating reports of wolf activity.

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