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ALAAction No. 2 in a series

1999; revised December 2004; revised August 28, 2007.

Intellectual Freedom

Navigating the OIF Web Site

| What Is Intellectual Freedom? | Why Is Intellectual Freedom Important? | How Libraries and Librarians Promote and Protect Intellectual Freedom | How ALA Helps Promote and Protect Intellectual Freedom | What You Can Do | A Sampling of ALA Resources | Contacts | Office for Intellectual Freedom Blog |

What Is Intellectual Freedom?

Intellectual freedom is our right to seek, receive, hold, and disseminate information from all points of view, without restriction, including those ideas that might be highly controversial or offensive to others. This free expression of ideas, as embodied in the First Amendment (1791), is a basic human right. This right was reaffirmed in 1948 by the United Nations in its "Universal Declaration of Human Rights," Article 19, which states, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Put simply, all people have the right to read what they want to read, hear what they want to hear, watch what they want to watch, and think what they want to think. As Americans, this right is guaranteed by the First Amendment and upheld by our legal system.

As noted in Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, the right to privacy is essential to exercising the right to intellectual freedom. Privacy is essential because, without privacy, without confidentiality, people may be too intimidated to access or to ask for information they need or want. For example, a teenager may be too embarrassed to ask for information on homosexuality, eating disorders, or even information about a friend's or relative's medical condition; an adult may be too self-conscious to check out a book on AIDS, sex, or other topics.

Why Is Intellectual Freedom Important?

As explained in "Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q and A," "Intellectual freedom is the basis for our democratic system. We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed. Libraries provide the ideas and information, in a variety of formats, to allow people to inform themselves. The right to vote is not enoughwe also must be able to take part in forming public opinion by engaging in open and vigorous debate on controversial matters. As James Madison wrote: "A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives."

The courts have determined that children and young adults, as well as adults, unquestionably possess First Amendment rights, including the right to receive information in the libraryA lack of access to information can be harmful to minors. Fortunately, education helps to protect them. As the National Research Council has pointed out metaphorically, "Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one's children is to teach them to swim" ("Youth, Pornography, and the Internet").

How Libraries and Librarians Promote and Protect Intellectual Freedom

As information professionals, librarians are in a unique position to promote and protect intellectual freedom for all people by selecting, producing, providing access to, identifying, retrieving, organizing, providing instruction in the use of, and preserving recorded expression regardless of the format or technology. Librarians have traditionally taken upon themselves the responsibility to provide, through their institutions, all points of view on all questions and issues of our times, and to make them available to anyone who wants them. This responsibility lies at the heart of the Library Bill of Rights, which serves as the library profession's interpretation of the First Amendment.

Librarians also must be prepared to defend intellectual freedom by opposing censorship in all its formswhen a book is removed from a library shelfwhen a challenge is brought before a local school board, or when a filter is installed on a library computer to restrict Internet access. When censorship is attempted, not only is our Constitutional right to seek and receive information endangered, but the very essence of our democratic society is jeopardized.

Perhaps no freedom is more threatened than our freedom to read. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove books from sale, to censor textbooks, to label "controversial" books, to distribute lists of "objectionable" books or authors, and to even purge libraries.

Hundreds of challenges to library and other materials are reported each year, and many more go unreported. There were nearly 460 challenges reported to OIF in 2003. (Since 1990, there have been over 8000 reported challenges.) It is estimated that these account for no more than 20 to 25 percent of the total number of challenges throughout the United States. More than complaints, these challenges are requests to have materials removed from library shelves and curricula, most frequently in our nation's schools.

The advent of technology and the increased demand for information makes the right to intellectual freedom even more critical. To ensure intellectual freedom, libraries should use technology to enhance, not deny, access to information. Regardless of the medium, users should not be restricted or denied access for expressing or receiving constitutionally protected speech. These rights extend to minors as well as adults (see these Interpretations of the ALA Library Bill of RightsFree Access to Libraries for MinorsAccess to Resources and Services in the School Library Media ProgramAccess for Children and Young People to Videotapes and Other Nonprint Formats). Information retrieved or utilized electronically or by other means is constitutionally protected unless determined otherwise by a court of law with appropriate jurisdiction.

Indeed, libraries are an American value. In communities across our country, they provide a free people with the resources they need to read, learn, and connect to the full spectrum of ideas and information essential to our democracy.

The greatness of our nation's libraries lies in their commitment to intellectual freedom. Libraries have always been a forum for ideas, even those that may be unorthodox, unpopular, or offensive. Libraries embody the belief that information must not be the exclusive province of a privileged few, but that it be widely and freely available to all, regardless of a person's age, race, background, or views. By providing the opportunity for an open, free, and unrestricted dialogue on all issues of concern, libraries preserve those freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

But intellectual freedom can only flourishand democracy surviveif the right of everyone to choose for themselves what they wish to read, hear, and view at libraries is guaranteed. Without this freedom, our nation's citizens would be severely limited in their ability to explore issues and questions necessary to their education, enlightenment and self-governance.

Libraries have always stood for more access, not less. That's why they continually strive to provide a full range of information in all formsprint and electronic. Not only are libraries offering what has been considered traditional resources, such as books, magazines, and reference materials, but most offer videos, CD-ROMs, and computers. In fact, Internet access in public libraries is as common as books. Almost all public library outlets offer public access to the Internet and have Internet use policies.

The freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment is uniquely fulfilled by the library. Newspapers provide information, but it is naturally abridged and tends to reflect the prejudices of an editor or publisher. Schools educate but according to a program to fit the many and imposed by educators and administrators.

It is in the libraryand in the library alonethat self-directed learning to the limits of one's own abilities and to the limit of what is known, can take place. Libraries allow us to be well informed so we can make the decisions our Constitution says are ours to make. It is the library where intellectual freedom finds its staunchest advocate.

How State Library Associations Help

State library association intellectual freedom committees advocate for intellectual freedom by opposing state legislation that would limit access to information and by providing workshops and training programs about censorship issues. State library associations across the country are taking the lead in responding to the impact of new technology on library services by offering training addressing children, filtering, and the Internet. A number of state associations have published brochures and other materials to promote intellectual freedom and have established awards to recognize efforts that preserve intellectual freedom within their own states.

How ALA Helps Promote and Protect Intellectual Freedom

The American Library Association (ALA) maintains a broad program for the promotion and defense of intellectual freedom centered around the Library Bill of Rights, the association's basic policy on free access to libraries and library materials. Originally adopted in 1939 by the Council, the ALA's governing body, the Library Bill of Rights has been revised and updated several times to reflect contemporary concerns. Interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights, dealing with specific professional practices, also have been developed as policy statements.

Intellectual Freedom is one of five key actions areas1 affirmed by the American Library Association (ALA) to fulfill its mission of providing the highest quality library and information services for all people. The public's right to explore in their libraries many points of view on all questions and issues facing them is critical to that mission. This brochure highlights ALA's activities in this area and invites your support of intellectual freedom.

In addition to its intellectual freedom policies, ALA has developed many privacy policies, guidelines, and statements, such as Privacy: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. In addition, ALA has codified the ethical principles of librarians and other information professionals in its Code of Ethics. This Code states that librarians "protect each library user's right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted."

ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee

The ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee is responsible for recommending policies on intellectual freedom to the ALA Council. These policieson such matters as access to electronic information, free access to libraries for minors, labeling of library materials, and censorship of library materialsprovide libraries with concrete guidelines for establishing their own policies and serve as a professional standard. The committee includes liaisons from other ALA divisions, such as the American Association of School Librarians and the Young Adult Library Services Association.

ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is charged with protecting the freedom to read in libraries. The office provides counsel, training, and other assistance to librarians and trustees facing challenges to materials in their collections. The office also educates librarians and the public about the nature and importance of intellectual freedom in libraries.

OIF maintains a wide-ranging program of educational and informational publications, services, and projects. The best known of these is "Banned Books Week," an annual celebration of the freedom to read and explore many points of view, cosponsored by ALA and other concerned organizations. Each year, a Banned Books resource kit is prepared. The kit includes a comprehensive resource guide  with suggested activities for libraries, as well as an annotated list of challenged or banned books.

The office also publishesboth in print and onlinethe Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom, the official bimonthly publication of the Intellectual Freedom Committee. The newsletter provides a comprehensive look at censorship efforts, court cases, legislation, and current readings on the subject. It also provides information about ALA's latest activities dealing with intellectual freedom issues. In conjunction with the ALA Public Information Office, OIF maintains ongoing media relations efforts to educate the press about timely issues dealing with intellectual freedom, such as the use of filters in public libraries.

One of the most important functions of OIF is providing advice and consultation to libraries facing potential or actual censorship controversies. The office provides background information about challenged works, applicable ALA policies, position statements, advocates who can provide testimony and other counseling as necessary.

In 1990, the OIF established a censorship database to record and report statistics on challenges to library materials across the country. This confidential database is useful in identifying trends in censorship cases and for documenting responses and solutions to them. Through the office, as well as the Intellectual Freedom Committee, the ALA supplies analyses and testimony to lawmakers about the effects of potentially restrictive legislation on intellectual freedom in libraries. Legislative strategies and testimony on intellectual freedom issues also are coordinated with the ALA Committee on Legislation and the ALA Washington Office.

OIF sponsors workshops and training programs on the topic of intellectual freedom. One of its ongoing projects is Lawyers for Libraries. Taught by legal and library professionals, these workshop institutes are designed to build a nationwide network of attorneys committed to the defense of the First Amendment freedom to read and the application of constitutional law to library policies, principles, and problems.

The LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund, administered through OIF, provides immediate financial assistance to librarians in jeopardy of termination or have been fired because of an intellectual freedom dispute or as a result of discrimination.

ALA also participates in legal challenges affecting intellectual freedom principles. ALA was the lead plaintiff in the successful lawsuit challenging the federal Communications Decency Act of 1996, which was designed to control materials on the Internet vaguely defined as "indecent" or "patently offensive." The United States Supreme Court stuck down the Act in 1997, thanks to the efforts of the ALA and other groups concerned with civil liberties.

Intellectual Freedom Action Network

The Intellectual Freedom Action Network  (IFAN) is a grassroots, ad hoc group of volunteers who have identified themselves as willing to come forward in support of the freedom to read in censorship controversies in their communities. It was established by OIF in the fall of 1994.

In response to requests by members of the Intellectual Freedom Round Table  for a more active voice in intellectual freedom issues, IFAN also was formed as a "rapid response" force to counter the successful and widespread efforts of national censorship pressure groups to organize and mobilize local chapters working on the local level to restrict the availability of expressive materials with which they disagree or find offensive.

Librarians being attacked by such groups were encountering an organizational level to which they could not, alone, respond. The IFAN works to address the need for support and eliminate the sense of isolation that librarians feel who find themselves involved in a censorship challenge.

The purpose of the IFAN is twofold. First, participants are asked to submit to OIF information on groups attempting to censor materials in libraries. Second, IFAN members are asked to lend support (e.g., writing letters to the editor, attending a school or library board meeting, or calling a colleague involved in a challenge) when a controversy erupts in their community.

The information IFAN members provides about issues is very useful in helping OIF oppose censorship in its many forms. For example, IFAN members are effective in alerting the office about local and statewide controversies involving book challenges, proposed changes in library policies and operations that would limit access to library materials, and state legislation that would restrict the availability of constitutionally protected expression.

One way IFAN members can stay informed is by subscribing to IFACTION , the news-only, no-discussion e-list of IFAN and OIF. IFACTION helps to fulfill OIF's goal "to educate librarians and the general public about the nature and importance of intellectual freedom in libraries" and to keep IFAN members informed. To that end, several intellectual freedom news items are posted daily. IFACTION informs its subscribers-IFAN members and other interested persons-by:

  • Posting a wide variety of articles and information on intellectual freedom issues of interest to its subscribers, primarily librarians;
  • Posting information on intellectual freedom issues that may not have another venue; and
  • Posting information that indicates intellectual freedom principles and concerns are not just held by the library profession, but also by youth and others in the general public.

Intellectual Freedom Round Table

The American Library Association encourages its members to become actively involved in the defense of intellectual freedom. In 1974, ALA established the Intellectual Freedom Round Table (IFRT) as a membership organization within ALA. The round table sponsors the primary intellectual freedom program at the ALA Annual Conference and cosponsors other programs on intellectual freedom-related subjects; publishes a report periodically; provides a forum for the discussion of activities, programs, and problems in intellectual freedom of libraries and librarians; and promotes a greater opportunity for involvement among the ALA members in defense of intellectual freedom and a greater feeling of responsibility in the implementation of ALA policies on intellectual freedom.

IFRT sponsors three awards: the annual John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award, presented to an individual or group that has shown extraordinary personal courage in the defense of intellectual freedom; the ProQuest/SIRS State and Regional Achievement Award, presented annually to the state intellectual freedom committee that has implemented the most successful and creative state project during the preceding year; and the Eli M. Oboler Award, which recognizes the best work in the area of intellectual freedom published in the two years prior to its presentation.

Freedom to Read Foundation

A sister organization to the ALA, the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF), provides legal counsel to support libraries and librarians who have experienced injustices in defending the freedom to read as guaranteed by the First Amendment. The foundation directly participates in litigation dealing with the freedom of speech and press, and allocates and disburses funds to individuals and groups to aid them in their litigation efforts.

In 1999, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Freedom to Read Foundation celebrated their thirtieth anniversaries, recognizing the commitment of thousands of librarians, trustees, and decision makers who have made the First Amendment a living document in our libraries and throughout the nation.

ALA Divisions

The work of OIF and FTRF is complemented by the intellectual freedom activities of various ALA divisions.

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) serves as a liaison to the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee and refers censorship controversies in school libraries to OIF. AASL also collaborates with ALSC and YALSA to develop a yearly intellectual freedom program for the ALA Annual Conference.

The Association for Library Collections & Technical Services (ALCTS) ensures that intellectual freedom is protected in the acquisition, identification, cataloging, classification, and preservation of library materials. ALCTS establishes guidelines for collection development to guarantee that collections are built without prejudice and are open to all people. ALCTS also takes steps to ensure that library materials of all types are represented in the catalog in a timely manner and are fully accessible.

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) supports children's librarians facing censorship challenges to children's literature in libraries. Recently, ALSC has focused its intellectual freedom efforts on children's access to the Internet. Its multi-faceted approach to protecting children's rights to access Internet materials includes education, advocacy, national partnership efforts, and participation in national Internet Summits on child protection, Internet privacy, and education.

The Public Library Association (PLA) maintains an Intellectual Freedom Committee that serves as a liaison to the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee, OIF, FTRF, and IFRT. This committee advises the PLA board on matters dealing with intellectual freedom. It also prepares materials for public libraries to advise them of available services and support to help formulate intellectual freedom policies and for resisting local pressure and community action intended to impair the rights of public library users. PLA has conducted a number of intellectual freedom-related programs.

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) Intellectual Freedom Committee works with the AASL and ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committees to plan and present an annual conference program that focuses on intellectual freedom issues particularly affecting children and youth. YALSA also published "Hit List: Frequently Challenged Books for Young Adults 2" to help librarians effectively respond to the most likely censorship challenges.

What You Can Do

In Other Words, Stay Informed and Be Counted!:


A Sampling of ALA Resources

For more information, contact sponsoring units. To order titles from ALA Editions, call 800-545-2433, press 7. ALA members receive a 10% discount.

From the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom

Banned Books Week Resource Kit
Includes three posters, 100 bookmarks, a button, and Resource Guide  (every third year) containing ideas for a celebration, sample press materials, camera-ready art as well as an annotated list of challenged or banned books. Support OIF by purchasing your Banned Books Week materials here!  See aslo How to Celebrate Banned Books Week 2007.

Censorship and Selection: Issues and Answers for Schools
Henry Reichman, American Library Association, and American Association of School Administrators, third edition, 2001. Discussion of censorship issues in dispute, legal interpretations, arenas of conflict, dealing with challenges in schools and preparing selection policies. 0-8389-0798-9.

Code of Ethics
The ALA Code of Ethics  is the library profession's codification of its ethical principles.

Coping with Challenges
ALA, 1999, second edition. Coping with Challenges brochure provides strategies and tips for dealing with challenges to library materials.

Freedom to Read Statement
The Freedom to Read statement is an integral part of ALA's intellectual freedom policies. It is a joint statement of the ALA with the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

Hit List: Frequently Challenged Books for Children 2
Beverley C. Becker and Susan M. Stan for the Office for Intellectual Freedom. ALA Editions, 2002. Essential resource that identifies the most frequently challenged children's books and where to turn for support when a title is questioned. Arranged alphabetically by author. 65 p. 0-8389-0830-6.

Hit List: Frequently Challenged Books for Young Adults 2
Teri S. Lesesne and Rosemary Change for the Young Adult Library Services Association. ALA Editions, 2002. Tells how to quickly, 0-8389-0835-7.

IFACTION  is a news-only, no-discussion e-list of the Intellectual Freedom Action Network (IFAN) and the Office for Intellectual Freedom. Several intellectual freedom news items are posted daily.

To SUBSCRIBE/UNSUBSCRIBE to IFACTION, just follow these simple steps:

1. Go to <>;

2. Enter "ifaction" in the Search lists box; or click view all lists, and search for;

3. Click;

4. Click Subscribe or Unsubscribe;

5. Enter your email address and click Submit. A welcome message with your password will be sent to you. If these steps don't work, or you need other assistance, contact the Office for Intellectual Freedom at

IFFORUM  is an unmoderated discussion list from the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. Intellectual freedom news and current issues are posted and discussed.

To SUBSCRIBE/UNSUBSCRIBE to IFFORUM, just follow these simple steps:

1. Go to <>;

2. Enter "ifforum" in the Search lists box; or click view all lists, and search for;

3. Click;

4. Click Subscribe or Unsubscribe;

5. Enter your email address and click Submit. A welcome message with your password will be sent to you. If these steps don't work, or you need other assistance, contact the Office for Intellectual Freedom at

The Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q&A brochure provides discussion of censorship issues. Definitions of intellectual freedom, censorship and obscenity included. Single copy $2. Special prices for bulk orders.

Intellectual Freedom Manual
By the Office for Intellectual Freedom. ALA Editions, 6th Edition, 2002. (The 7th edition is planned for January 2006.) The Intellectual Freedom Manual  is the definitive source for practical options for anticipating and responding to censorship attempts. Includes a variety of essays and information about how ALA can assist libraries in preserving intellectual freedom. 434 p. 0-8389-3519-2.

Interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights
These Interpretations cover a range of topics, including access to resources and services in the school library media program; diversity in collection development; statement on labeling; free access to libraries for minors, among others. Online at

Libraries, Access, and Intellectual Freedom: Developing Policies for Public and Academic Libraries
By Barbara M. Jones. A comprehensive guide to recognizing problem areas and legal issues, and developing effective policies. 266 p. 0-8389-0761-X

Library Bill of Rights
The Library Bill of Rights is the library profession's interpretation of the First Amendment and ALA's basic policy statement on free access to libraries and library materials. Printed 8 ½" x 11" parchment, free. Illuminated 13"x20," from the Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom
The Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom updates on censorship issues, court cases and legislation as well as ALA's activities in this area. Bimonthly. $70 per year (print), which includes annual index; $50 per year (electronic); and $85 per year (both print and electronic). For multiple subscriptions to the same address, and for back issues, please contact the Office for Intellectual Freedom at 800-545-2433, x4223 or #0028-9485.

Privacy Tool Kit
The Privacy Tool Kit explains the importance of privacy and confidentiality, especially in relation to intellectual freedom in libraries. Includes "Guidelines for Developing a Library Privacy Policy," a bibliography, and other resources.

Speaking Out! Voices in Celebration of Intellectual Freedom
By Ann K. Symons and Sally Gardner Reed. Librarians in all types and sizes of libraries will find courage and wisdom in these quotes to help defend and preserve intellectual freedom. 116 p. 0-8389-0763-6.

Other ALA Resources

ALA Annual Conference
Programs and discussions on a full range of library-related topics including intellectual freedom. Held in June of each year. See the April issue of American Libraries for conference preview and registration information.  See ALA Division Conferences and Training Programs immediately below.

ALA Division Conferences and Training Programs
Listing of division conferences and regional institutes.

ALA Editions Catalog
Professional books for the library and information services community. To request a free catalog, call 800-545-2433, ext. 2425.

ALAWON  is a free irregular publication of the American Library Association Washington Office that includes legislative alerts and current information about intellectual freedom and related issues and legislation impacting libraries.

To SUBSCRIBE/UNSUBSCRIBE to ALAWON, just follow these simple steps:

1. Go to <>;

2. Enter "ala-wo" in the Search lists box; or click view all lists, and search for;

3. Click;

4. Click Subscribe or Unsubscribe;

5. Enter your email address and click Submit. A welcome message with your password will be sent to you.

If these steps don't work, or you need other assistance, contact the Washington Office at


ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 4223
Fax: 312-280-4227

Freedom to Read Foundation
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 4226
Fax: 312-280-4227

ALA Conference Services
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 3220
Fax: 312-380-3224

ALA Public Information Office
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 5041/5044
Fax: 312-944-8520

American Association of School Librarians
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 4386
Fax: 312-664-7459

Association for Library Collections & Technical Services
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 5038
Fax: 312-280-3257

Association for Library Service to Children
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 2163
Fax: 312-944-7671

Public Library Association
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 5752
Fax: 312-280-5029

Young Adult Library Services Association
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 4390
Fax: 312-664-7459

American Library Association
50 East Huron Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Telephone: 312-944-6780
Toll-free: 800-545-2433
TDD: 312-944-7298
Fax: 312-944-9374

  1ALA is committed to five Key Action Areas as guiding principles for investment of energies and resources:


Diversity is a fundamental value of the Association and its members, and is reflected in its commitment to recruiting people of color and people with disabilities to the profession and to the promotion and development of library collections and services for all people.

Education and Continuous Learning

The Association provides opportunities for the professional development and education of all library staff members and trustees; it promotes continuous, lifelong learning for all people through library and information services of every type.

Equity of Access

The Association advocates funding and policies that support libraries as great democratic institutions, serving people of every age, income level, location, ethnicity, or physical ability, and providing the full range of information resources needed to live, learn, govern, and work.

Intellectual Freedom

Intellectual freedom is a basic right in a democratic society and a core value of the library profession. The American Library Association actively defends the right of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment.

21st Century Literacy

The American Library Association assists and promotes libraries in helping children and adults develop the skills they need-including the ability to read and use computers-understanding that the ability to seek and effectively utilize information resources is essential in a global information society.

Links to non-ALA sites have been provided because these sites may have information of interest. Neither the American Library Association nor the Office for Intellectual Freedom necessarily endorses the views expressed or the facts presented on these sites; and furthermore, ALA and OIF do not endorse any commercial products that may be advertised or available on these sites.