Politics in American Libraries

An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...” The Library Bill of Rights specifically states that “all people” and “all points of view” should be included in library materials and information. There are no limiting qualifiers for viewpoint, origin, or politics. Thus there is no justification for the exclusion of opinions deemed to be unpopular or offensive by some segments of society no matter how vocal or influential their opponents may be at any particular time in any particular place.

Associate Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. observed in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), “[There exists a] profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Therefore, libraries should collect, maintain, and provide access to as wide a selection of materials, reflecting as wide a diversity of views on political topics as possible, within their budgetary constraints and local community needs. A balanced collection need not and cannot contain an equal number of resources representing every possible viewpoint on every issue. A balanced collection should include the variety of views that surround any given issue1.

If a library has designated a space for community use, it must make that space available to all community organizations and groups regardless of their views or affiliations2. Libraries should rely on appropriate time, place, and manner regulations to guarantee equitable access and to avoid misuse of library space. These may include regulations governing the frequency and length of meetings and penalties on disruptive behavior 3. Libraries should establish similar regulations if they make library space available for public exhibits or the public distribution of literature4.

The robust exchange of ideas and opinions is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Providing free, unfettered access to those ideas and opinions is an essential characteristic of American libraries. Therefore, libraries should encourage political discourse as part of civic engagement in forums designated for that purpose. Libraries should not ignore or avoid political discourse for fear of causing offense or provoking controversy.

Special limitations may apply to workplace speech (including political advocacy) by library employees 5. When libraries are used as polling places, state statute or local ordinance may mandate temporary time, place, and manner restrictions on the political expression of members of the public, poll workers, and library employees while polling places are open.

This interpretation is most clearly applicable to public libraries. School, academic, and private libraries, including those associated with religious institutions, should apply these guidelines as befits or conforms to their institutional mission.

 

1.  “Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” Adopted July 14, 1982, by the ALA Council; amended January 10, 1990; amended July 2, 2008; amended July 1, 2014

2. “Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” Adopted July 2, 1991, by the ALA Council

3. "Guidelines for the Development of Policies and Procedures Regarding User Behavior and Library Usage,” Adopted January 24, 1993, by the Intellectual Freedom Committee; revised November 17, 2000; revised January 19, 2005

4. “Exhibit Spaces and Bulletin Boards: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” Adopted July 2, 1991, by the ALA Council; amended June 30, 2004

5. “Questions & Answers on Speech in the Workplace: An Explanatory Statement of the ALA Code of Ethics,” Adopted by the Committee on Professional Ethics, July 2001; amended January 2004; amended June 26, 2006; amended January 24, 2007; amended July 1, 2014

 

Endorsed by the ACRL Professional Values Committee in June 2017. Adopted June 27, 2017, by the ALA Council.