Enforcement of the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association: Questions and Answers

1. What is ALA’s procedure to enforce the Code of Ethics?

As a voluntary membership organization, ALA does not enforce the Code of Ethics for a variety of reasons. As a non-licensing professional society, the ALA would have two possible actions in response to a violation of the Code of Ethics:

  • Suspend or expel a member from membership, or
  • Admonish or censure an individual or institution, publicly or privately.

Because membership in a professional society may affect an individual's career, US anti-trust laws permit punitive action affecting membership:

  1. Only for a good cause,
  2. Only after affording the member due process.

A.  Good cause will be found to exist only if the member has engaged in conduct which the professional society has a legitimate interest in prohibiting or controlling, which may not be the case with individual infringements of the Code of Ethics in particular situations.  The Federal government would not permit a professional society to suspend or expel a person from membership on grounds of race, gender, anticompetitive motives, personal vendetta, etc.

B.  To meet due process requirements, the accused must have an opportunity to be heard, to be represented by counsel, and to undertake an appeal.  Some professional associations have, for example, a mini-trial in front of a panel of judges.  In such mini-trials, the panel typically makes a recommendation to the association's board of directors, which makes the final determination on punishment.  A separate body must act as appellate reviewers.

Considerations regarding due process:

  • Fulfilling the due process requirements is expensive and problematic, because judges must be flown to a central location for the hearing, and the presence of legal counsel is standard. 
  • Because professional associations do not have investigative arms, they must rely solely on presentations of the complainant and the accused.  Often the judges find themselves unable to determine the truth and decline to find in favor of the complaintant because the complainant failed to carry the burden of proof.
  • Also, the judges, the appellate reviewers, and the association are not covered by the type of immunity enjoyed by Federal and state judges.  If the judges make a mistake and suspend or expel a member or make a public statement about a member or another individual or institution which is based on faulty determinations, they can be sued individually and collectively for defamation on anti-trust violations.

2.  Has ALA had an enforcement procedure in the past?

The enforcement of ALA documents has focused on the Library Bill of Rights. After its adoption, some members called for a “policing” effort to publicize censorship problems and bring pressure upon authorities to correct conditions conducive to censorship. After nearly a 20 year debate, a Program of Action in Support of the Library Bill of Rights was adopted. This first Program of Action was developed by the IFC and approved by Council. It created a mechanism where complaints about censorship incidents were reported to the Office of Intellectual Freedom and acted upon by the Intellectual Freedom Committee. Under this Program, 3 fact finding projects were undertaken between 1969 and 1970. The three complaints investigated under the Program of Action made it clear that cases involving intellectual freedom also might raise issues of tenure, academic status, ethical practices, and a variety of other matters. In 1970, a case involving denied employment made it clear that the Program only dealt with the Library Bill of Rights. The Intellectual Freedom Committee rewrote the Program of Action to allow jurisdiction over all ALA policies on intellectual freedom and tenure. At the 1971 Midwinter meeting, the Library Administrative Division and the Association of College and Research Libraries claimed vested interests in investigations, particularly those involving tenure of academic librarians. A membership group, appointed by the ALA president, presented the Program of Action for Mediation, Arbitration, and Inquiry to Council in June 1971. It was adopted and the first Program of Action rescinded.

The new Program of Action established a Staff Committee on Mediation, Arbitration, and Inquiry (SCMAI), which  functioned somewhat as the IFC had under the old document. In addition to intellectual freedom problems, the new committee handled cases involving tenure, professional status, fair employment practices, ethical practices, and due process as set forth in ALA policies. In June 1990, the SCMAI was replaced by the Standing Committee on Review, Inquiry, and Mediation (SCRIM). Lack of funding caused the SCRIM to cease operations in September, 1992.

3.  What can be done about violations of the Code of Ethics?

Libraries are encouraged to adopt the Code of Ethics as a policy. With the ALA Code of Ethics as a local policy, enforcement moves to the local level. Violations of the Code of Ethics may also be a violation of local, state, or Federal law. For example, many states have laws regarding confidentiality of library user’s records, which is also addressed in Principle III of the Code of Ethics. In this case, dealing with a violation through the court system would be a possibility. Principle V addresses the workplace, another example of where there are many laws to protect the rights and welfare of workers. While an employer or employee in violation of this Code of Ethics principle should be accountable, there are many agencies at the state and Federal level designated to handle these infractions.

4. How do other professional associations enforce codes of ethics?

Many examples of codes can be found with any internet search. Websites of organizations with which ALA may have some commonality, though not in all cases, are listed below. Only those organizations with some kind of license or certification that can be withdrawn seem to have enforceable codes. In some cases, membership to an organization can be withdrawn, but this may not have real major consequences for the individual if membership is not required by the individual’s profession.

5. Why have a Code of Ethics if there is no enforcement?

The answer to this question can be found in the preamble to the principles—

As members of the American Library Association, we recognize the importance of codifying and making known to the profession and to the general public the ethical principles that guide the work of librarians, other professionals providing information services, library trustees and library staffs.

Ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict. The American Library Association Code of Ethics states the values to which we are committed, and embodies the ethical responsibilities of the profession in this changing information environment.

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom, and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.

6. What can I as an individual do to help ensure that the values and the principles of the Code are upheld?

The Code offers guidelines for responsible behavior and sets forth a common basis for resolving ethical dilemmas encountered in daily practice. You can obtain a copy of the Code and post it where you and others in your workplace can see it daily. You can make yourself aware of local, state, or federal laws concerning ethical conduct and how that conduct might be enforced in the workplace. You can also encourage adoption of the Code as local policy and advocate for ethics education as a necessary component of staff development. Most importantly, you can make a personal resolution to live daily the values and principles embodied by the Code, to engage in an ongoing process of professional growth and ethical self-reflection, and to model ethical behavior and decision-making.

Organizations with codes of ethics to consider for Question 4:

National Education Association

Codes of Ethics for Historians

Codes of Ethics for Archaeologists

Codes of Ethics for Archivists

Ethics: General

The American Society for Public Administration

National Association of Social Workers

NASW may be contacted with complaints. They do have a process for
professional review, http://www.socialworkers.org/nasw/ethics/procedures.pdf

Association for Institutional Research

Institute of Management Consultants

Public Relations Society of America

ISACA, Serving IT Governance Professionals

American Medical Association

American Association of Museums

International Council of Museums

Association of Professional Genealogists


Adopted January, 2009