By: James LaRue, Director, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom
See ALA’s statement, “ALA OIF Responds to Library Bill of Rights Meeting Room Interpretation update.” Please also see the comment section. See, too, the new Expanded Timeline.
The American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is charged with implementing ALA policies concerning the concept of intellectual freedom as embodied in the Library Bill of Rights, the Association’s basic policy on free access to libraries and library materials.
Article VI of the Library Bill of Rights (first adopted by Council in 1939) states, “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 affiliation of individuals or groups requesting their use.”
The Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) proposed a revision of the 1991 “Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” that states, “A publicly funded library is not obligated to provide meeting room space to the public, but if it chooses to do so, it cannot discriminate or deny access based upon the viewpoint of speakers or the content of their speech. This encompasses religious, political, and hate speech. If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library cannot exclude religious, social, civic, partisan political, or hate groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities.”
The revision of the interpretation was broadly inclusive and transparent. The decision to include hate speech and hate groups was made by the IFC and OIF in response to feedback they received from ALA Council and the ALA community when the interpretation draft was widely distributed, which concerned whether the KKK is allowed to use meeting rooms. The draft was edited during ALA Annual Conference by the IFC, and iterations were sent to ALA Council and distributed at two Council Forum sessions for feedback. The current language about hate speech and hate groups was included in the draft distributed at the second Council Forum session. The Public Library Association (PLA) reviewed and provided feedback to an earlier version (distributed before Annual Conference), but did not review or approve the final version. Again based on an earlier version, the interpretation was endorsed in principle by ALA’s Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE), the Association of Specialized & Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA) and the Intellectual Freedom Round Table (IFRT). Please note that documents are edited constantly up until the end of conference in an attempt to incorporate suggestions and wordsmith. The committee proposed a final draft in its Report to Council, which was distributed Monday, June 25, and presented at ALA Council Session III on Tuesday, June 26. Council voted to adopt the revised interpretation. Based on member and council comments, this process is likely to change, providing more time to review changes from previously submitted drafts, and vote electronically. [Correction to this paragraph have been added in italics to indicate that division and committee approvals were either conditional or based on previous drafts.]
“Meeting Rooms: an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” did not establish any new right to conduct hate speech in libraries. ALA does not endorse hate groups, and does not seek to normalize hate speech. But it recognizes that “hate groups” is a remarkably elastic term, prone to be thrown about by both sides of a political spectrum. It has been attached to book discussion groups, Black Lives Matter, Muslim groups, and others. The statement also recognizes two prominent lines of litigation addressing public library meeting rooms. The first set of cases addressed the exclusion of religious groups from library meeting rooms. The second set of cases involved the exclusion of white supremacist groups from library meeting rooms. In both situations, the libraries changed their policies to permit the meetings. In some of the cases, the court ruled against the library on First Amendment grounds; in other cases, the court indicated that it would rule on First Amendment grounds, causing the library’s administration to settle the lawsuit and change its policies to allow the group to meet in the library. The interpretation was also reviewed by legal counsel, and reflects the current legal climate. Our goal is not only to protect free speech, but also to keep libraries out of court.
It is the premise of intellectual freedom that providing broad access to public space builds communities, not only by providing common ground, but by facilitating the sometimes contentious discussions that lead to positive social change. Just as books may offend some people, so might the views of the folks who meet in a library room, or protest outside of it.
Can libraries be “safe spaces?” Librarians cannot protect the public or ensure their safety from ideas they disagree with, nor can they guarantee that no individual’s feelings or beliefs will ever be challenged. This position is fundamentally contrary to the very principles of democracy. We can and must preserve the public’s physical safety. Here are a few resources:
- Libraries Respond – by the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services. This also addresses issues beyond physical safety.
- Controversial Speakers and Programs Q&A – adopted by IFC at ALA Annual Conference 2018
- Equity, Diversity, Inclusion interpretation – ALA is about diversity and intellectual freedom, not just one or the other.
To assist librarians in the work of providing thoughtful service, ALA continues its publications, webinars, and education efforts. For a sample of our previous work, see
- Meeting Rooms, Exhibit Spaces, and Programs
- Webinar: “Crafting Meeting Room Policies that Keep You In Charge and Out of Court”
- Hate Speech and Hate Crime
An alternative resource: Public Libraries: A New Forum for Extremists, a Q & A by the Anti-Defamation League, courtesy of the New Hampshire Library Trustees’ Association.
The language of the current interpretation may certainly be further revised. The underlying principles, however, remain. Librarianship is not based on the suppression of speech. It is based on the right to express and access it.
As mentioned in the IFC’s Report to Council, a Q&A about meeting rooms is forthcoming. Please send potential questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below is a summary of the process through which the Meeting Room Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights was adopted. It is added to this post on July 17, 2018.
February – A review group was initiated at the 2018 ALA Midwinter Meeting to survey all the intellectual freedom documents and determine whether they need major, minor or no revisions, in preparation for the publication of the Intellectual Freedom Manual, 10th edition.
March – The review group determined that the meeting room interpretation needed revisions. Several issues were identified, among them charging fees, definitions of “meeting rooms” and what groups may use meeting rooms.
IFC Chair Helen Adams sought volunteers with public library backgrounds. The working group consisted of five volunteers currently employed in public libraries across the country and had the support of OIF staff.
April – An IFC working group, in six conference calls from March through April, updated two Library Bill of Rights interpretations: “Meeting Rooms” and “Library-Initiated Programs as a Resource.”
May – In May, a revised meeting rooms interpretation draft was distributed to the IFC for comment. The feedback period was 9 days. Here’s language from that draft:
If [publicly] funded libraries make their meeting rooms available to the general public for non-library sponsored events, the library may not exclude any group based on the subject matter to be discussed or the ideas that the group advocates. For example, if a library allows charities, non-profit groups, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library should not exclude partisan political, civic, social or religious groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities. Religious organizations have the same right to use library meeting rooms as other community groups; such use does not constitute a breach of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
In four conference calls during May, the working group took each comment from IFC into consideration and revised the document; it discussed the ethics of charging for meeting rooms and “commercial uses” of meeting rooms.
In May, the revised interpretation was distributed to the ALA community for feedback. The interpretation draft was sent to ALA Council, division presidents and executive directors, Round Table Coordinating Assembly, Committee on Professional Ethics, Intellectual Freedom Round Table membership and board, the State Intellectual Freedom Network, and ALA staff liaisons. The document was also posted on ALA Connect. Here’s the language that was included in the draft sent to the ALA community:
If publicly funded libraries make their meeting rooms available to the general public for non-library sponsored events, the library may not exclude any group based on the subject matter to be discussed or the ideas that the group advocates. For example, if a library allows charities, non-profit groups, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library should not exclude partisan political, civic, social or religious groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities. Religious organizations have the same right to use library meeting rooms as other community groups; allowing religious groups to use the library’s meeting rooms does not constitute a breach of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
June – After the deadline for comments passed, the IFC working group reviewed the feedback in three more conference calls. A discussion thread on the Google Doc concerned whether the KKK is allowed to use meeting rooms; some commenters urged the matter to be addressed within the document.
The working group revised the document to be included in the IFC’s conference packet. On June 12, copies of the three documents were emailed to IFC liaisons of PLA, ALCTS, ASCLA, and IFRT, requesting review and endorsement. Part of the email stated: “To avoid any misunderstanding, I’m acknowledging that the documents may change slightly based on comments received during the Council Forums on Sunday and Monday. It is the intent of the IFC to submit the three revised interpretations to Council for approval at Council III on Tuesday.”
This is the language that was distributed to the IFC in preparation for ALA Annual Conference:
If publicly funded libraries make their meeting rooms available to the general public for non-library sponsored events, the library may not exclude any group based on the subject matter to be discussed or the ideas that the group advocates.1 If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library cannot exclude partisan political, civic, social, or religious groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities. Public libraries have lost or have been forced to settle lawsuits filed on First Amendment grounds when the library tried to deny meeting room space to conservative religious groups or white supremacists.2 Religious organizations have the same right to use library meeting rooms as other community groups. Allowing religious groups to use the library’s meeting rooms does not constitute a breach of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.
The documents were reviewed by legal counsel, who added suggestions. The IFC accepted these revisions at IFC Meeting III at Conference.
ALA Annual Conference Friday – The IFC met for IFC Meeting I and IFC Meeting II. The interpretations weren’t edited. During those meetings, the IFC was engaged in final editing of “Social Media Guidelines for Public and Academic Libraries” and “Responding to and Preparing for Controversial Programs and Speakers Q&A” documents, and the IFC approved both documents.
ALA Annual Conference Sunday – The above language in the IFC packet is the same language that went to Council Forum I on Sunday morning.
At IFC Meeting III from 12:30-2:30 on Sunday afternoon, the committee discussed the three interpretation drafts. For the “Meeting Rooms” interpretation, a division liaison expressed the division’s suggestion to revise the mention of conservative religious groups and white supremacy groups in the third paragraph, as it seemed to them to equate the two groups and tended to reinforce the stereotype that libraries only want to serve a liberal audience. IFC meeting attendees suggested other phrases to replace “white supremacists,” such as hate groups and pressure groups.
A small working group went into the hall to revise this section of the document. When they returned, the revised section was reviewed by the committee. The suggested edits included moving references to any extremist group to a footnote. The working group argued that original comments on previous drafts requested specific guidance and that avoiding the reference was ignoring the “elephant in the room.” Instead of itemizing conservative religious groups and white supremists, the compromise was to use hate groups to broadly include groups that have extreme or unpopular views on religious, racial, and cultural issues. This was the language that was created by the committee:
Public libraries are bound by the First Amendment and the associated law governing access to a designated public forum. A publicly funded library is not obligated to provide meeting room space to the public, but if it chooses to do so, it cannot discriminate or deny access based upon the viewpoint of the speaker or the content of the speaker’s speech. This encompasses religious, political, and hate speech.1 If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library cannot exclude religious, social, civic, partisan political, or hate groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities. Allowing religious groups to use the library’s meeting rooms does not constitute a breach of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.2
ALA Annual Conference Monday – The above language went to Council Forum II Monday morning. It was also posted on ALA Council’s Connect page. The IFC met for the last time Monday afternoon from 12:30-2:30. The committee reviewed the meeting rooms interpretation draft. One member questioned the inclusion of hate speech and hate groups in the draft, and there was an explanation about how it was originally written as “white supremacists.” Another IFC attendee suggested adding definitions of hate speech and hate groups. Another suggested changing the statement from “This encompasses religious, political, and hate speech” to “This encompasses political and hate speech, as well as religious speech.”
An IFC member made the motion to approve the revised “Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.” Another IFC member seconded the motion. There was no further discussion. There being no opposed and no abstentions, the motion passed.
The IFC chair did not attend Council Forum III on Monday afternoon because at that time she was working with OIF staff to recheck text of the three interpretations and finalize the IFC’s Report to Council by the deadline of 6 p.m. After its last meeting, the IFC submitted its Report to Council, which included three action items, proposed to Council for adoption: “Meeting Rooms,” “Library-Initiated Programs as a Resource” and “Services to People with Disabilities” interpretations. The Report to Council was distributed to Council members Monday night. On the meeting rooms document within the report, it stated the interpretation revision was endorsed by COPE, and endorsed in principle by ASCLA and IFRT, as the final language in the document was not approved by IFC until its last meeting; documents are edited constantly up until the end of conference in an attempt to incorporate suggestions and wordsmith.
ALA Annual Conference Tuesday – During Council Meeting III, IFC Chair Helen Adams gave an overview of the IFC’s and OIF’s work since Midwinter Meeting. Describing the “Meeting Rooms” interpretation revision, she stated, “The revision that you see today has strengthened the guidance on providing nondiscriminatory access to meeting rooms and addressed fees for the use of meeting spaces. The Committee plans to create a Q&A to address specific questions that were asked by librarians when we sought comment on the revisions.”
At the microphones, a few councilors spoke in support of the motion. The motion carried.
James 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.