Conducting a challenge hearing

Challenges to materials only occasionally reach the stage of a full-blown administrative hearing; often they are resolved at an earlier step in the challenge resolution process. When a hearing is necessary, however, certain important do’s and don’ts should be observed. A number of battles have been lost because the challenge hearing has been poorly organized. Even though procedures have been followed to the letter up to this point, the handling of the challenge hearing may be the weak link in the process.

The challenge process begins when someone objects to materials in a library collection. At this point, providing an explanation of selection procedures, a copy of the selection policy, or a copy of the reconsideration or complaint form will often terminate the problem. Most complainants never return the reconsideration form because he or she sees the logic of the selection process which emphasizes intellectual freedom and due process. The complainant tends to be satisfied in registering a concern and knowing the library is taking the concern seriously.

There are a few, however, who wish to follow through on the procedures established in the selection policy for handling complaints and approved by the governing authority. To activate the reconsideration procedure, a complaint should be in writing. In fact, the written and approved selection policy should state that anonymous phone calls, rumors, or voiced concerns are not honored; action occurs only when the reconsideration or complaint form has been returned. The reconsideration committee, comprised of representatives of all library users and the librarian, should accomplish the following steps:

  1. Read, view or listen to the challenged material in its entirety;
  2. Review the selection process and the criteria for selection;
  3. Check reviews and recommended lists to determine recommendations by the experts and critics;
  4. Meet to discuss the challenge; and
  5. Make a recommendation to the administrator on removal, retention, or replacement.

The complainant should be notified of the committee’s decision. At the same time, the procedure for appealing the decision, if the complainant disagrees with it, also should be provided. The appeal level may be a school board, a board of trustees or a city or county board of commissioners or council. (The selection policy should clearly identify the chain of command.) The appeal also must be in writing in order for the chair of the governing authority to place it on the agenda for the next meeting. The librarian should follow up on this step to make certain the presiding officer is aware of the policies and procedures which should be followed, including open meetings law and the agenda. Normally, the board conducts a challenge hearing which provides the forum for the complainant to air his or her objections to the title in the collection and the recommendation of the reconsideration committee.

A hearing on challenged material is serious and often lengthy. Such a hearing may be the only item on the agenda; indeed, best results are most often achieved this way.

Never attempt to stage a hearing quietly. The entire community should be aware of the meeting and what has transpired up to this point. The hearing should be announced well in advance. Publicity is very important to assure good attendance at the meeting. Make the time and place very clear. Indicate in an announcement or news release that an open hearing is being held and that the public is invited. Try to obtain full coverage by the local press, radio and television. Prepare a news release for each of these groups to make certain they have the facts correct. Deliver copies of the media center or library’s selection policies to them, along with a copy of the Library Bill of Rights. These policies, of course, should include procedures for handling complaints.

Decide in advance on a length of time for the entire hearing. Have a definite beginning and ending time. Guard against overlong meetings when small groups may make decisions in the late hours. This has spelled disaster in some instances. Attempt to estimate in advance the size of the gathering for the hearing. Make certain the meeting place is large enough to prevent postponing the meeting or changing locations at the last minute. A late site change may result in losing part of the group attending. There have also been situations in which one faction arrived early, securing the choice front seats. To preclude this, the room can be divided, with people favoring retention of the material on one side, opponents of the material on the other.

Seek help and advice from your state intellectual freedom committee, local and state colleges and universities, educational groups, teachers’ professional organizations, coalitions, and the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom. Many of the non-library groups have committees on intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, and/or academic freedom. Even when representatives from these groups are not present at the hearing, solicited resolutions in written form sometimes help in supporting your philosophy.

Make arrangements in advance to tape proceedings and keep minutes. Announce at the hearing where and when these will be available to the general public. They should be accessible as soon as possible after the hearing.

Solicit people who will be willing to speak in support of the freedom to read, view and listen. This pool of speakers should be contacted well in advance of the hearing. In fact, many librarians have lists of persons they have contacted previously and who are library supporters. The best spokespersons in hearings tend to be attorneys, ministers, people from the news media, educators, and, of course, librarians. Response to persons from the local community is usually more favorable than to people brought in from outside. Student speakers are also effective. They speak from the heart and do not have any vested interest other than maintaining their freedom of choice guaranteed by the Constitution.

As people arrive for the hearing, they should be given a copy of the selection policy. The policy should include the following elements, among others: a statement of the philosophy of materials selection, a statement that the governing board is legally responsible for selection of materials, a statement detailing the delegation of this responsibility to the professional library personnel, criteria for selection of materials, procedures for implementing the criteria, and a section on procedures for handling challenged materials. If the Library Bill of Rights is not a formal part of the policy, it should be duplicated and distributed as well.

One or more persons should be stationed at the entrance to sign in people wishing to speak. Request that they identify the side on which they will be speaking. If at all possible, attempt to have the same number of speakers on both sides. They should be allowed to speak in the order they signed in. Limit each speaker to a specific amount of time, i.e., three or four minutes, and appoint a timekeeper in advance. No participant should be allowed to speak a second time until everyone registered has been heard once. It is extremely important to adhere strictly both to the time limits and to the order of the speakers.

All members of your advisory board, your reconsideration committee and governing board should already be well-schooled in intellectual freedom principles and procedures. It is the responsibility of the librarian to accomplish this to ensure their support when a challenge hearing is necessary. All those selected to testify should be reminded they are defending a principle more than an individual title. The actual title in question should play a secondary role. It is very difficult to disagree with the freedom to read, view and listen in a democratic society.

Begin the hearing on time. The chair of the governing board should preside as at any other business meeting. After calling the meeting to order, he or she should review the procedures to be followed at the meeting, even though the procedures for handling complaints are in the selection policy. The board should delay its decision until a later date and this should be announced at the beginning of the hearing. The meeting is simply to hear all sides of the issue.

Through the whole process, it is crucial to follow the traditional advice of remaining calm. Remember to practice what you preach and ensure due process. Listen carefully and courteously to everyone. By using good communication skills, you will help people understand your logic in ensuring diversity in library collections. Keep your governing authority up-to-date on all events and incidents. Examine your personal philosophy of intellectual freedom on a regular basis. Meet all negative pressure with positive pressures, such as emphasizing intellectual freedom rather than the perils of censorship.

By following this advice, you will be able to conduct a successful challenge hearing and improve your image in the process.

Gene D. Lanier, the author, is a former faculty member of the Department of Library and Information Studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina