Responding to and Preparing for Controversial Programs and Speakers Q&A

This Q&A offers strategies and resources for preparing your library to approach community concerns as well as reaction to potentially controversial programs, events, and speakers. Libraries are encouraged to look to their own institution’s policies regarding behavior, programming, and collection development, and to consult with legal counsel in the context of these issues. For additional information, contact the Office for Intellectual Freedom at


Representation of all views at library programs

Why do libraries offer programs, events, and speakers?

According to “Library-Initiated Programs and Displays as a Resource: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” “Library-initiated programs support the mission of the library by providing users with additional opportunities for information, education, and recreation. Article I of the Library Bill of Rights states: ‘Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.’”

How do libraries plan programs, events, and speakers?

Libraries should have written guidelines or policies, similar to a collection development policy, that have been drafted in consultation with legal counsel and approved by the governing body. Policies should outline the mission of the library, how speakers are chosen, the scope of the programs offered, how facilities are used, how programs will be advertised and by whom, and potential security needs. The policies should also refer to the library’s code of conduct and expectations for customer behaviors during library-initiated and -hosted events. Libraries should be receptive to community suggestions for programs, events, and speakers.

Do we need a broad representation of views in library-initiated programs?

As stated in “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” libraries should strive to provide a full range of viewpoints in their programming and experiences, serving the needs of all members of the community. As with collection development, programs in libraries enhance the collection, support the institution's mission, and provide the community with access to diverse ideas and information.

How do libraries balance the representation of views in their choice of programs, events, and speakers?

Libraries may use a variety of criteria to select speakers. Common criteria may include current topics and interests, and information needs of the community. The availability of resources to present programs and speakers is also a factor. Libraries have a responsibility to represent diverse views and avoid bias. Libraries should be proactive and present programs that provide multiple viewpoints. Library-sponsored speakers should have some expertise, credentials, or credibility on the topic they are discussing.

What if an outside group wants to use a library meeting room to host an event, speaker, or program?

Article VI of the Library Bill of Rights states, "Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use." Libraries may not exclude groups from using meeting rooms based on the viewpoint of the speakers or the content and subject matter that will be discussed.

Libraries with meeting rooms should develop policies that clearly outline expectations and guidelines for use. See "Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights" for further guidance.

An outside group has reserved a library meeting room to hold an event that supports a specific point of view. Does the library have to plan a library-initiated program to educate the public on the alternative perspective?

The library is under no obligation to create programming balancing an outside group’s use of the space, nor is it prohibited from doing so, depending on community interest or relevance.

What if a library-initiated program causes controversy?

Libraries should not shy away from controversy. Staff should be aware of applicable library policies and the criteria for selecting programs and community use of library spaces. They should be prepared to explain the policy, as well as the bedrock principles of intellectual freedom.  

How do we respond to community complaints about an upcoming library-initiated program, event, or speaker?

Complaints should be received respectfully. Many complaints can be resolved with a respectful conversation.

Every library should have a request for reconsideration policy and follow it. The principles of these policies also apply to programs, events, and speakers. Libraries can modify reconsideration policies to be applicable to programming. Information on reconsideration policies can be found in “Selection and Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, and Academic Libraries” and the Intellectual Freedom Manual.

A library-initiated event may cause controversy, and staff want to make sure we create a civil environment that fosters respectful discussion. How can this be accomplished?

Generally speaking, user behavior policies apply to all library-initiated programs regardless of venue and should be provided to attendees ahead of time. As with any event held at the library, library staff should welcome all. Library staff should be courteous. Policies and procedures should be transparent, available to all, and equitably enforced. For library-initiated events, a library representative should set the tone at the start of the event to reflect shared values and community spirit, and outline clear expectations for frank but respectful dialogue.  

What do we do if someone causes a disruption at an event in the library?

Expectations of behavior should be made clear before the event. If people violate acceptable behavior guidelines, they should be asked to cease that behavior or leave the library. If people fail to comply, the library should follow its appropriate behavior policy.

What if an audience member at a library-initiated event poses challenging or provocative questions?

Provocative and challenging questions are part of civil discourse and free speech. Libraries may establish time, place, and manner restrictions to limit the amount of time a questioner may speak. However, libraries support the right of individuals to ask uncomfortable questions. If there is concern the questions may detract from the program, alternative Q&A formats may be considered. Some libraries have found success in having audience members submit written questions to be read by a moderator. Libraries should not use this as a method to censor relevant questions.


Disinvited speakers and authors

When is it appropriate for a library to disinvite a speaker or cancel a program or event?

It may be appropriate to disinvite a speaker or cancel a program or event when there is a facility issue or inclement weather. It is not appropriate when the topic is controversial or if there have been complaints about the speaker, program, or event.  If there is a credible public safety threat, library workers should consult with legal counsel and local law enforcement.

What if the speaker for a library-initiated event has controversial views on a topic or has been accused of something inappropriate but unrelated to their speaking engagement?

Article I of the Library Bill of Rights states, "Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation." “Materials” may include programs, resources, and speakers. “Background” may include alleged behavior, past publications, or expression of controversial views.

What are the ramifications of canceling a library-initiated speaker, program, or event due to controversy?

Canceling a speaker, program, or event because of real or anticipated controversy could negatively impact the reputation of the library and its ability to serve the community as a forum for the exchange of ideas. There could also be public relations, legal, financial, or other contractual implications.


Dealing with protests and speakers

People are upset about a program and want to organize a protest. What should I do?

Begin by recognizing the concerns the person has with the program, and take steps to address them with respectful and civil conversation. Staff should follow their reconsideration policy for programs, events, and speakers. Staff should also carefully review any publicity to ensure it describes the event accurately. A model response from the Darby (Mont.) Community Public Library is published in American Libraries Magazine.

We had the conversation, and they are still planning a protest. How do we prepare?  

  • Library administrators should determine the maximum occupancy of the building and address any other building-safety issues (for example, clearing hallways and ensuring access to emergency exits).
  • Library administrators should ensure that the library has written policies that address disruptive behavior, including any protest inside the library that interferes with patrons’ quiet use and enjoyment of the library. Public libraries are not public squares and may restrict disruptive behaviors. Similarly, publicly funded school and academic libraries that open their facilities for use by the public should have written policies that address disruptive behavior, including any protest inside the library that interferes with patrons’ quiet use and enjoyment of the library. Publicly funded school and academic libraries that open their facilities for use by the public are considered to be a designated public forum. Strict scrutiny will apply to any restrictions placed on access.
  • Library administrators should communicate with leaders of the protest groups, and maintain an open line of communication with them. Ask the group leader to establish a tone of respect and civil discourse during the program. Inform them that libraries are not required to allow protests inside the library. People have a constitutional right to protest on the public sidewalk and other public spaces not controlled by the library. Remind group leaders to consult with local government regarding the permitting process for any organized protest/demonstration.
  • When there is an early indication of multiple protest groups attending, local law enforcement should be consulted about proper procedure. If there is any question of safety or sign that groups will clash, library administrators should request local law enforcement support. It is not the library’s responsibility to supervise or control the behavior of protesters on spaces that are considered traditional public forums. If protesters impede access to the library, local law enforcement should be notified.

The protesters are my friends and neighbors. How should I react to them?

Safety is paramount. Library management should consider in advance what level of interaction they are comfortable with, if any. There is no legal requirement to interact with protestors. Everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.

What if community members express concern about the protesters? Is there anything the library can do?

So long as the protesters are engaged in peaceful protest on a public sidewalk and not impeding access to the library, they are entitled to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech.

What if protesters interfere with library users entering the library?

Libraries should notify local law enforcement if protesters are interfering with users entering the library.

What if someone has threatened violence?

Libraries should consult with relevant law enforcement or security officials to ascertain the credibility of the threat. Administrators should respond as circumstances require and plan for a range of responses for likely outcomes.

We are concerned that someone will bring a Nazi flag or banner with racial slurs to a protest event outside the library, which could lead to violence. Can we tell them they cannot display Nazi flags or banners because it may pose a public safety issue?

The First Amendment protects the right of individuals and groups to engage in peaceful protest on public sidewalks, even if the protest includes expressive activities that are viewed as outrageous or offensive. If the library fears that the protest may become violent, they should notify local law enforcement.

Are there local, state, and federal laws to consider regarding protesters’ rights and responsibilities and protest procedures for the library?

Libraries are not required to allow protests inside the library. Public libraries, and publicly funded school and academic libraries that open their facilities to the public, should have written policies that address disruptive behavior, including any protest inside the library that interferes with patrons’ quiet use and enjoyment of the library.  Publicly funded school and academic libraries that open their facilities for use by the public are considered to be designated public forums, and strict scrutiny will apply to any restrictions placed on access. Libraries should contact their local government agencies or legal counsel if they have further questions about specific local requirements.


Security for programs and events

We’ve decided to hire security for an event. Who is responsible for paying the cost?

If an outside group is renting or using space for an event, the library could require them to pay the cost of security. This requirement should be spelled out in the approved usage of space policy, and be applicable to any person or group reserving the space under the same circumstances, such as events held outside the library's normal operating hours. These policies should be reviewed by the library’s legal counsel to ensure they meet legal requirements. If it is a library-initiated program, the library would bear the cost.

How many security personnel should there be?

Libraries should consult with a security firm or local law enforcement for guidance.

How do we convey security expectations and library policies to hired security (and who is responsible for communicating them)?

Whether the event is being held at the library or another venue offsite, library administrators should communicate with security staff and any co-sponsoring organizations. There should also be a written agreement. If the venue is not library property, library administrators should convey to security personnel  information about the library code of conduct, how it applies to the event, and who is responsible for enforcing it. If the facility where the event is being held has a code of conduct or security requirements that vary from the library’s, how these requirements are addressed should be mutually agreed upon prior to the event.

How can libraries protect the public and author/speaker without paid security personnel?

Libraries can help protect the public and the speaker by increasing staff coverage to assist attendees. Best practice should be to have a senior staff member at potentially controversial events.  Library administrators should determine the maximum occupancy of the building and address any other building safety issues (for example, clearing hallways and ensuring access to emergency exits). A tone of respect and decorum at the meeting or event should be established at the start. It can be helpful to have a verbal and/or written plan for a discussion segment following the presentation. For example, a library director or other carefully chosen moderator may pose all discussion questions to the speaker with questions submitted in writing. Library administrators may notify law enforcement about the event and request police presence if such security measures are merited.

We decided not to hire security, but what do we do if something happens during the event?

Library staff have at least three options. First, they may notify law enforcement ahead of time, and request a visible presence. Second, staff might ask that officers be aware that they might get a call in the event of a problem. Third, whether or not law enforcement has been notified ahead of time, staff should always reach out to them if the health and safety of the public or staff are in danger.


Updated June 2018