Behavior policy: Behavior policies cover actual behavior and not arbitrary distinctions between individuals or classes of individuals, appearance, or behavior that is merely annoying or generating negative subjective reactions from others.
Establishment Clause: The First Amendment's Establishment Clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.
Library-sponsored event: This event is planned and executed by the library; co-sponsored events are normally considered to be library-sponsored.
Meeting room policy: Meeting room policies provide rules and regulations that govern all possible spaces used for meetings by outside groups in the library including library-related parks, lobbies, and labs.
Non-library sponsored (group) event: This is an event that is planned and executed by an entity other than the library.
Public forum: A public forum is a place or space, either physical or virtual, in which any person can exercise their First Amendment right to speak or engage in other expressive activities. The courts have identified three different types of public forums:
- A traditional public forum is a government-owned place that has been traditionally available for public assembly, speech, and discussion (e.g., parks, sidewalks, and streets).
- A designated or limited public forum is a place purposefully opened by the government for designated expressive activity by part of the public or all of the public.
- A nonpublic forum is a place that is neither traditionally used for expressive activities nor set aside or opened up in a substantial way for expressive activities.
Rules about what kinds of restrictions on speech may be legally imposed in a given place are based on the type of forum that has been established.
Public Forum (Meeting Rooms and the Law)
1. Does the First Amendment apply to my library?
The First Amendment applies to all government and publicly funded agencies, including libraries. It does not apply to private institutions. The extent to which it applies to a government or publicly funded agency—whether a public library, public school library, or academic library that is part of a public institution—will depend on the context and application of the public forum doctrine.
Because the mission of public libraries is to serve the larger community, courts have imposed stricter standards on restrictions to access to the library’s resources and facilities, and require greater access to information and the library facility in public libraries. Public schools and universities—including their libraries—serve defined communities of students and employees, rather than the general public. As a result, they are generally considered nonpublic forums. They may have greater latitude to impose restrictions on access consistent with their missions. Students’ access to resources and the removal of materials in public schools and academic libraries in public colleges and universities, however, are matters still subject to the First Amendment.
Any institution that opens its facility to the public for the use of its space could be considered a limited or designated public forum for that purpose and would have to meet the more stringent First Amendment standard applicable to that type of public forum. Also, any library that participates in the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) must provide free access to FDLP information resources in all formats to any member of the general public without impediment.
All libraries, public or private, are encouraged to adopt policies supporting intellectual freedom and reflecting the principles expressed in the Library Bill of Rights.
2. Must a public library provide meeting rooms to the public?
A public library is not obligated to provide access to its meeting rooms and other facilities.
If a public library chooses to open its meeting rooms, display cases, or literature tables for public use, those facilities are considered a designated public forum.
Public libraries that open their facilities to public use cannot disadvantage or exclude speakers or groups from using their facilities solely because they disagree with those parties' views or the content of their speech.
A public library that opens its facilities for public use may not exclude a group from its facilities to avoid controversy or public disapproval.
3. Must publicly funded school and academic libraries provide meeting rooms to the public?
Publicly funded school and academic libraries are not obligated to provide access to their meeting rooms and other facilities.
School and academic libraries are likely to be subject to institutional policies and should consult with their administration about these spaces. Publicly funded schools and universities that open their spaces to the public would be governed by the same public forum rules as public libraries, so libraries are advised to consult with their administration.
4. Do libraries endorse the speech or viewpoints of outside groups that use library meeting rooms?
Just as libraries do not endorse information contained in their collections, libraries do not (and should not) endorse any speech made by outside groups in their meeting rooms. This includes political, social, religious, and partisan groups as well as groups that advocate or advance controversial ideas or disparage others. Libraries should consider including language in their policies stating that the provision of meeting room space to a group is not an endorsement of the group, its beliefs, or its speech.
5. Does it violate the Establishment Clause if a public library provides meeting space to a religious group or a group that intends to engage in religious practices?
No court has held that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause requires libraries to prohibit meeting room use by religious groups engaged in worship. Religious groups and organizations must be treated like any other community group. See also “Religion in American Libraries Q&A.”
6. Who promotes meetings and events when the library is not a sponsor?
The sponsoring group should be responsible for promoting its meeting or event. Libraries are under no obligation to display advertising for outside groups, but if they choose to do so, all groups should be treated equally. Promotional materials should clearly indicate the name and contact information of the sponsor of the program. If the name and address of the library is used for directional purposes, advertising should indicate that the views do not represent that of the library.
7. Can libraries deny a group access to meeting rooms?
Libraries may deny access only if an individual or group does not meet the eligibility guidelines stated in the library’s policies. Meeting rooms are open to reservation by everyone who is eligible to use the facility according to the library’s policy.
The reasons for denial must be reasonable in light of the policy, apply equally to all individuals or groups, and cannot be based on the organizers’ views, background, beliefs, or the content of their speech. Meeting room policies should include a means of appealing a decision to the library director or the governing body of the library.
Libraries may not deny access because of disagreement with an individual or group or because they are considered offensive or controversial. Article VII of the ALA Code of Ethics states, “We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”
8. Has a library ever been sued for denying access to the library’s meeting rooms?
Libraries have been successfully sued by groups that have been denied access to library meeting rooms based on the group’s beliefs, the content of their speech, or the fear that the group’s meeting will cause controversy. Most notably, libraries have been successfully sued by religious groups that have been denied access to library meeting rooms. See Concerned Women for America, Inc. v. Lafayette County, 883 F.2d 32, 35 (5th Cir. 1989) and Citizens for Community Values, Inc. v. Upper Arlington Library Board of Trustees, Case No. C-2–08–223 (S.D. Ohio 8/14/08).
9. Should a library exclude politicians, elected officials, and partisan political activities?
An individual or group should not be denied access to the library’s meeting room because they intend to engage in political speech, to meet with constituents, or to discuss partisan views. Partisan campaign events may be inconsistent with the library’s mission and should be addressed in the library’s policies. In addition, state and local laws governing the use of public funds and facilities may regulate the use of the library’s facilities for partisan events. Libraries should consult with their legal counsel for guidance on these issues. See also “Politics in American Libraries: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
10. What should a meeting room policy cover?
A policy should address the following items:
- Statement of why the library provides meeting rooms to the public
- List of what the library provides as a meeting room to the public
- Eligibility requirements
- Appeals procedure
A policy may address, but is not limited to, the following:
- After-hours events
- Alcohol and drug consumption
- Consequences of not following policies
- Contract or written agreement
- Costs for cleaning
- Extra security and any related fees
- Food and beverage consumption
- Frequency of using a room (e.g., no more than once a week/month)
- Prohibited items
- Purpose of use by the individual or group making the reservation
- Rental fees for room or use of equipment
- Restrictions on length of meetings
- Sales in the room
The meeting room policy should be applied equally to all individuals and groups and reflect the mission and plan of service of the library. Policies must adhere to local, state, and national laws and regulations.
The policy can regulate the time, place, or manner of use, as long as the regulations do not pertain to the message communicated during the meeting or to the beliefs, opinions, or affiliations of the sponsors. The meeting room organizer and those attending the meeting are required to comply with the library’s behavior policy.
Best practice is to include a statement addressing the failure to comply with these policies, which may lead to immediate termination of the meeting, exclusion of individuals from library premises pursuant to the rules, and/or loss of future meeting room privileges.
The policy should provide a means of appealing a decision to deny access to the library's facilities to the library director or the governing authority.
Policies should be regularly reviewed by staff and be easily accessed on both the library’s website and in the library itself.
11. What other policies apply to meeting room use?
All libraries should have a behavior policy approved by the relevant governing authority. Groups using library meeting rooms should be given a copy of the behavior policy when signing the meeting room contract or written agreement.
12. What if the individual or group reserving the meeting room violates the contract or written agreement?
13. What if the organizers or attendees violate library policy?
Library workers should take appropriate action as defined in the library’s policies when a group or individual is violating those library’s policies, such as the behavior and use policy. Behavior that harasses employees or users should not be tolerated. Library administrators have a responsibility to ensure that all library workers are familiar with and trained about all applicable policies concerning meeting rooms and user behavior. See “Hateful Conduct in Libraries: Supporting Library Workers and Patrons.”
Sales and Fees
14. Would engaging in sales or offering commercial information be allowed in a meeting room?
Meetings and organizations engaging in sales or offering commercial information may only be excluded under limited circumstances. Policies must be explicit when stating if sales or promotions of services and items are allowed.
15. May a public library charge fees for its public spaces?
Yes, but the fees must be applied equally. The rules and fees must be outlined in the library’s policies. See “Economic Barriers to Information Access: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights.”
Where can I find more information?
Approved by the Intellectual Freedom Committee June 24, 2019.