Libraries and Hate Speech: ALA’s New Resource ‘Hateful Conduct in Libraries: Supporting Library Workers and Patrons’

First Amendment, Office for Intellectual Freedom

By: Rebecca Hill

While it is not a new phenomenon, over the last two years, we have seen a troubling increase in headlines about hate speech or conduct. Photos of young high school-aged men laughing as they give the Nazi salute. Taunts and threats to “build the wall” or “go back to Mexico” to Hispanics and other ethnicities and races. A Nazi swastika drawn on a bathroom wall or an outdoor wall at a synagogue, or a Confederate flag displayed on a classroom wall. Then there have been the infamous episodes of barbequing while black, selling water while black, and even sleeping while black. The headlines have been full of these incidents. While it’s always been a part of our culture, the rise of hate speech and conduct has become even more prevalent today so much so that it is alarming.   

The non-profit, independent newsroom ProPublica is now in its second year of the Documenting Hate project. Documenting Hate is a collaborative project that began logging and investigating hate in 2017 with more than 160 newsrooms across the country. Since they launched their plan, they have received over 5,400 reports of hate speech from all 50 states, 1,200 of which they have verified. They have also have collected thousands of hate crime and incident reports from law enforcement departments throughout the U.S.  

Partnering with ProPublica, Education Week’s report Hate in Schools also examined hate incidents in schools. Other organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, Southern Poverty Law Center, the Council on American Islamic Relations, the FBI, and others chronicle incidents of hate speech and conduct.

What they all found is that in nearly every corner of our everyday lives, from schools to synagogues, to college campuses, to Walmart, to libraries, we have been infected with hate speech. For librarians, it is a critical time to remember that as torchbearers for democracy, we are, whether we want to be or not, central in this battle between the First Amendment and hate speech. Therefore, getting prepared, knowing what to expect, and understanding or recognizing hate speech and conduct, then not being afraid to address it, are our greatest tools to combating it.

One of the first things that librarians need to understand is that hate speech and conduct can be difficult to address because though it is despicable, it is still firmly entrenched in the First Amendment. The United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive it can be with only two exceptions, both of which require specific legal action: 1) if hate speech or conduct directly incites imminent criminal activity or 2) if it consists of specific threats of violent targeting a person or a group.

Generally, hate speech is “any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate, and incite hatred against a group or class of persons.” While it seems illogical to protect speech that intends to “vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred,” the bigger picture ensconces democracy’s grandest measure: to protect that which makes our country different from most countries in the world, the First Amendment. Grounded in the First Amendment, free speech is that universal principle by which robust debate and the right of everyone to enter such discussions without fear of repercussion exist here whereas in other countries it does not.

For librarians, freedom of speech is integrated into our collection through free access to all materials and within the building through a diversity of programs like the Drag Queen Story Hour, both of which are defended by intellectual freedom guiding principles laid out by the American Library Association. All librarians must be familiar with these principles: the Library Bill of Rights and the Freedom to Read Statement.

The American Library Association has offered guidelines about hate speech. According to the ALA, “hate speech stops being just speech and becomes conduct when it targets a particular individual and includes behavior that interferes with a patron’s ability to use the library.”  While, at the very least, identifying hateful speech or behavior can be difficult especially with the prevalence of social media, as guardians of intellectual freedom, we must not run and hide from it.

Librarians must know that condemning hate speech does not infringe on a person’s First Amendment right. Just as someone can spew hate speech under the First Amendment, so can we condemn under the First Amendment. Failing to do so may even punctuate a sense of indifference to these incidents. So, as librarians, we have a right to condemn hate speech while at the same time affirming our values of free speech and inclusion as part of our mission as librarians. All these actions, even for the most experienced librarians, are difficult to navigate especially if the situation becomes volatile. Luckily, we now have tools at our disposal to help librarians recognize and cope with incidents of hate speech in the library setting.

ALA’s Hateful Conduct in Libraries resourceRecently the ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services and the Office of Intellectual Freedom collaborated on the development of a resource for library workers who have experienced hateful conduct and speech in their workspaces. Applicable for all library types, their guide can be used to help initiate conversations amongst staff and within local communities. In using this guide, librarians can consider and implement steps to proactively prepare in the event of hateful conduct. They can also identify the steps they can take to respond to an incident of hate speech or behavior. Finally, librarians may use the tool to help assess community needs and balancing all viewpoints to successfully resolve a hate speech or conduct issue. The tool also defines the various terms that arise in these situations and helps identify the unique aspects of each library setting which may impact resolution and understanding. More importantly, this tool is designed for librarians to bridge what we don’t know and what we know when it comes to hate speech and conduct while giving us valuable insight on how to quell its impact.  

Recently launched at the recent Midwinter Meeting, the resource is now free and available to all. You can find it at “Hateful Conduct in Libraries: Supporting Library Workers and Patrons.”


Rebecca HillRebecca Hill is a freelance writer who writes on libraries, literacy, science education and other topics for a variety of online and national magazines. Currently she writes a science education column for VOYA magazine. She hold a MLS from Indiana University Purdue University and JD from Valparaiso University. Her interest in intellectual freedom has been peaked by the increase in technology via artificial intelligence and social media. Currently she serves on the Indiana Library Federation Board of Directors and the Purdue University Libraries Dean’s Council. She is also on the Library Board of Trustees for her local library. A long time advocate of libraries, reading, writing and all things words are her passion.

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