By: Jamie LaRue
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.
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.
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 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.