History of Workshops

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Lawyers for Libraries workshops are open to licensed, practicing attorneys retained to represent or advise libraries on legal issues. Library trustees or board members who are responsible for establishing library policy may also attend. Librarians may attend if they are accompanied by a library attorney.

Lawyers for Libraries

In 1997 and 1998, OIF sponsored the Lawyers for Libraries Training Institutes, supported by the Alfred A. List Foundation. The Institutes trained attorneys on the applicability of First Amendment law to library policies, principles, and problems, focusing on such issues as mandatory Internet filtering, patron privacy, minors’ access to library materials, and developing community resources to deal with challenges to library materials. Over the course of the two workshops, nearly 100 lawyers received specialized instruction and advice on defending libraries and librarians against the forces of censorship. These lawyers in turn carried their expertise back to their communities, providing guidance to library trustees and administrators, and effectively representing their libraries in the courts and in the public square.

The need for local attorneys with the knowledge and skills necessary to defend the freedom to read continues unabated. When a legislator or citizen challenges library policies allowing open Internet access, or challenges the presence of a book on the library shelf, libraries must often depend on city attorneys or volunteer lawyers who have no specific legal expertise in First Amendment law, intellectual freedom principles, or their application to public libraries. Librarians and citizens organizing to resist a challenge often must seek assistance far outside their community. In one instance, a citizen’s group in Wichita Falls, Texas, relied on counsel residing in Dallas to fight a challenge to two children’s books on the shelf of the local library.

This dilemma is compounded by the tendency of public officials to give First Amendment concerns little priority in contrast to political or economic interests. Advocates for censorship are often vocal, sophisticated campaigners, who rely upon the battle cry “protect the children!” to advance their agenda. Skilled in the use of news media, they disseminate scare stories and misinformation concerning intellectual freedom issues (i.e., “minors have no First Amendment rights.”) Numerous libraries and library boards, without adequate counsel or support, often will compromise or comply with requests for censorship to avoid unwanted controversy or political consequences. Legislators, unwilling to risk any political consequences, pass laws restricting Internet content or limiting access to library materials.

Nothing exemplifies this trend more than the passage of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) by Congress. Passed in direct response to the clamor from censorship advocates to “safeguard the children,” this federal law conditions the provision of vital funding for technology and Internet access on a public library’s agreement to install filters. As a result, local libraries dependent on federal funds to provide their patrons access to the Internet find themselves in a regulatory and financial nightmare, forced to abandon local Internet policies crafted by local citizens, parents, and library patrons in favor of hastily-devised federal plan that mandates the use of filtering software for all patrons regardless of age. Studies of such software show that the programs universally block access to constitutionally protected speech.

In January 1996, the American Library Association adopted its Interpretation of Library Bill of Rights on Access to Electronic Information, Services, and Networks, calling for free and unfettered access to the Internet for any library patron, regardless of age. In July 1997, the ALA adopted a Resolution on the Use of Filtering Software in Libraries, which condemned as a violation of the Library Bill of Rights any use of filtering software by libraries. In accordance with these policies, the ALA filed suit on behalf of the nation’s libraries and library patrons to overturn CIPA on March 20, 2001. The case, American Library Association v. United States, was heard by a special panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2002; that panel found the law to be unconstitutional. Upon appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, the judgment was reversed and CIPA is now officially law, raising a significant number of legal and liability questions for libraries whether they choose to accept the money tied to CIPA or not. The OIF is endeavoring to provide information and assistance concerning CIPA to local libraries, but OIF cannot provide specialized assistance or advice to every local library. Local attorneys are needed to provide guidance and advice to library boards that must confront and address the issues raised by the Children’s Internet Protection Act. 

Patron confidentiality and privacy, long protected by state law, is also under assault. Law enforcement agencies demand access to circulation records and computer logs without court order, hoping to discover those citizens in the community who have an interest in drugs, violence, or pornography. Some libraries, unfamiliar with the law and without legal guidance, turn over such records without protest. Other libraries that defend patron privacy are criticized publicly by local police and politicians. In Louisiana, one sheriff who was refused library records without a court order went so far as to persuade his local state legislator to introduce a measure to repeal the laws protecting the confidentiality of patron records. That measure is still pending before the Louisiana legislature.

In addition, libraries face new legal challenges. Some library employees, unhappy with their board’s decision to permit open access to the Internet, are turning to employment discrimination laws to affect their library’s policies. They claim that unfiltered Internet access allows some patrons to access sexually explicit materials, and that exposure to those materials, even if accidental, constitutes sexual harassment.

These ongoing attacks on libraries and intellectual freedom principles demonstrate the acute need for effective local legal representation for libraries, patrons, and librarians. Attorneys must be equipped with the skills necessary to defend the freedom to read.

In February 2003, the initial Lawyers for Libraries Regional Training Institute was held in Washington, DC. Since then, regional trainings have been held in various cities across the country.  As OIF continues to sponsor regional institutes, more and more attorneys are learning about the intricacies of First Amendment law as applied to libraries, and the country's library users can be that much more secure that their rights will continue to be vigorously protected. Lawyers for Libraries "alumni" continue to remain connected with the Office and each other through an electronic list, and have helped their clients develop new policies and procedures, led workshops, and been valuable assets for libraries and librarians across the country.