Viewpoint Discrimination

Diversity, First Amendment, Policies

By: Allyson Mower

As many of you may have heard or read in the news last month, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s ruling regarding the unconstitutionality of the President of the United States blocking social media followers based on differences in opinion or viewpoint. Mike Masnick’s analysis of the case on TechDirt was very helpful in highlighting the salient pieces of the original decision and the affirmation. 

The main element of the ruling detailed the constitutional restriction placed on the government to not curtail speech based on viewpoint, what normally gets referred to as viewpoint discrimination. I appreciated the focus on viewpoint discrimination because it helped me realize that it is this type of discrimination that many librarians might face within the libraries where we work, be it brick-and-mortar space or online space. 

TechDirt’s analysis focused on the governmental and public official aspect of the constitutional restriction, but was quick to point out that this First Amendment case does not apply to social media companies nor their employees that provide the technological platforms. But it would apply to librarians. 

As Kristin Pekoll pointed out to me both in conversation and in her recent book (see the review from last month), librarians are normally considered government officials because: 

  • Elected officials appoint boards and library directors
  • Library directors, working on behalf of elected officials, hire librarians 
  • Librarians, in turn, represent the elected official as well as the voting public

In addition, the funds used to employ librarians and maintain the library buildings and collections we oversee come from a public tax base making libraries a public resource as well. 

Librarians, as government officials, would need to consider this case in light of our social media accounts. The non-discriminatory concepts and practices the court reified can be used to ask ourselves if there are occurences of viewpoint discrimination in our libraries. And, if there are, delve deeper into why that is the case and update policies and, most importantly, practices. Such a process would allow librarians to shore-up our own professional practices and maintain social media accounts (not to mention collections, displays, and programs) that represent and allow for diversity in viewpoints. 

Kate Lechtenberg recently highlighted the importance of placing librarian values and professional ethics in local policies in her post about a challenge to an LGBTQ-themed book display at a Maine city library. Kate reported that “Librarians defended themselves [in response to the challenge and] pointed out that their library displays [were] in line with policies about displays and programming.” Kate also talked about the difference between political and partisan viewpoints and maintained that all decisions within a library are political. Because of this, policies grounded in professional values, ethics, as well as the U.S. Constitution will always be essential. And this recent case brings further attention to the matter.

Allyson Mower

Allyson Mower, MA, MLIS is Head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.