Free Speech on the Clock: A Case Study From Chattanooga

First Amendment, Professional Ethics
Intellectual Freedom Manual

Have you ever considered the limits of your speech as a library worker? Intellectual freedom is a core value of the library and information science profession, however that does not mean that library workers have special privileges from other workers. As the Tenth Edition of the Intellectual Freedom Manual explains, the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment traditionally has not been thought to apply to employee speech in the workplace. 

The new Intellectual Freedom Manual brings up the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics in its section on Workplace Speech. While our profession values the First Amendment, library workers should abide by a set of professional ethics while representing the library. Article VI of the Code of Ethics states that:

We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

And Article VII states that:

We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources. 

The ALA Committee on Professional Ethics recently updated a helpful document, “Speech in the Workplace Q&A.” With that in mind, let’s shift gears to a real life scenario. 

In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a public library worker was fired for posting a video on social media of himself pouring lighter fluid on two Chattanooga Public Library books. The two books were How To Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) by Ann Coulter and Crippled America by Donald  Trump. The employee’s defense was that he had weeded the books from the collection. Even if that had been the case, it would not have followed the Chattanooga Public Library’s Collection Development Policy for discarded materials. You cannot remove books you disagree with or believe to be inaccurate from a public library’s collection.

Photo of the Chattanooga Public Library building
Chattanooga Public Library

Policies were violated and decisions were made: the employee was suspended in December 2020 and fired in February 2021. The library feels as though the employee’s actions were equivalent to censorship. The employee feels as though the information in the books is inaccurate and furthers white supremacy. However, at the end of the day neither the library or the library board has control over the issue. It is noted in the December 2020 Library Board Meeting Minutes that the city’s Human Resources department was in control of staffing issues.

It is tied to political speech. The employee is a publicly known political activist. He has organized protests against police brutality. The selected books are cataloged by Dewey in the 320s for Political Science. Burning books in public is historically seen as a political act. Library jobs should not be exploited for personal political purposes. The proper library thing to do would be to order a couple books opposing the views of Donald Trump and Ann Coulter. 

Books will come and books will go. The library I worked at on November 9, 2016 did not own The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump because it had been naturally weeded out due to lack of interest by its community. This was a conservative community but that book came out in 1987. The library re-ordered a copy in January 2017 because of the renewed interest. Who knows what will happen over the next few years with that re-ordered copy, but collections take strange paths. The books on any given library’s shelves inevitably end up reflecting that specific community’s values at that moment in time.

As a librarian, there really should be moments when you grit your teeth and order that stupid book that all of the people are asking for. A good library has books to offend everyone, its own staff included. There is at least one book in my library about Werner von Braun that whitewashes his entire involvement in the Nazi Party and the Holocaust and that is offensive to me because of personal family history tied to those events. I think it is wholly inappropriate to glorify Nazis in youth nonfiction. I am sure that you have such a book lurking in your stacks, somewhere.

If you do not have a book like that at your library, I honestly would encourage you to find one. Fighting for intellectual freedom is easy if you never pause to question how you feel about every type of book. It is something you almost have to practice. For now, the Werner von Braun book sits there, occasionally being checked out. Someday I might be able to discard it but until then I have purchased at least one more factual book about von Braun to sit beside it. History is complicated like that because without him, the United States would not have fulfilled President Kennedy’s goal of a man on the moon by 1969.  

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