SRRT Action Council Statement on Hate Speech and Libraries

SRRT Action Council Statement on Hate Speech and Libraries

Hate is on the rise in the United States. According to a report issued this year by the Southern Poverty Law Center, in 2017 the number of hate groups nationally increased by 4% from 2016; the number of neo-Nazi groups rose by 22%; the number of anti-Muslim groups grew for the third straight year; the number of anti-immigrant groups jumped from 14 to 22; and various hate websites experienced a phenomenal growth in page views and subscribers.[1] Meanwhile, the frequency of hate crimes is also increasing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Hate Crimes Statistics report for 2017 noted an almost 5% rise from 2015 to 2016, and a 10% increase from 2014.[2] And the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University has found a 12.5% growth in the incidence of hate crimes reported by police in America’s largest ten cities in 2017.[3]

In this context, in December 2017 the Office of Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (ALA) posted a web page on “Hate Speech and Hate Crimes” devoted to explaining at great length the constitutional protections enjoyed by hate speech, and that “there is no ‘hate speech’ exception to the first amendment.”[4] Then, in June 2018, without advance publicity or discussion, ALA’s Council voted to insert “hate speech” into the list on the “Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights” page of the types of speech that must be permitted in any public libraries that provide meeting rooms to the public. Also, it inserted “hate groups” into the list of the types of organizations which cannot be prevented “from discussing their activities in the same facilities.” [5] We believe these changes were neither necessary nor wise. The “Meeting Rooms” statement that a library “cannot discriminate or deny access based upon the viewpoint of speakers or the content of their speech” was already sufficiently clear, and implicitly included both “hate speech” and “hate groups.” Beyond that, the emphasis on “hate speech” and “hate groups” in both pages resembles the extension of an invitation to groups that are deeply hostile to the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion that ALA rightly describes as “central to intellectual freedom.”[6] With others, we urge ALA to take down the “Hate Speech” page and rescind the revisions of the “Meeting Rooms” page.

At the same time, we cannot agree with colleagues who are calling upon libraries to ban hate speech and upon ALA to encourage such a ban.[7] For us, the issue does not involve the “rights” of fascists, neofascists, white supremacists, anti-Semites, or others who actively use hate to target specific groups. It is a question of the most effective method for combatting those groups, their ideas, and their activities. Our concern is that any calls to limit the far Right by means of laws or rules are doomed to be hopelessly ineffective and dangerously counterproductive.

Over the last 100 years, numerous laws, regulations, and programs have been implemented in the U.S to restrict civil liberties. These have included the Espionage and Sedition Acts, the Deportation Law of 1918, the Smith Act, Harry Truman’s 1947 Executive Order 9835, and COINTELPRO. In virtually every case these have been employed mainly, if not exclusively, against progressive movements and organizations on the Left.[8] We believe this is not accidental. The state in the U.S. is not neutral. It predominantly defends and promotes the power and privileges of the top 1% of wealth, and it seeks to destroy any threat to that power and those privileges. It is inevitable that any effort to restrict the liberties of any group or political current will be turned against progressive movements and the Left. It’s worth noting that one bill currently before Congress that is directed against alleged “hate speech,” is the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act.” As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has stated, it would equate “constitutionally protected criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, making it likely that free speech will be chilled on campuses.”[9]

Most public libraries in the U.S. are directly affiliated with municipal or county governments.[10] All are heavily dependent on governmental funding, and are highly responsive to the pressures of local, state, and federal governments. There may be communities in the U.S. where public libraries can exclude only groups of the far Right. But in most libraries, we can expect that any ban of hate groups and hate speech will be extended under internal or external pressure to include groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, Black Lives Matter, and various Left organizations. Such a ban might take the form of simply excluding all political meetings from the library.

At the same time, groups of the far Right will capitalize directly upon any attempt to ban their meetings. Although these groups are mortal enemies of democracy, in the face of attempts to prohibit their meetings they will immediately present themselves as “defenders of free speech.” Public attention will shift from a focus on their hateful views and actions to the attempted “violation of their democratic rights” by the Left. The far Right will receive a wider hearing for its message, and the Left will be depicted and more widely perceived as the real enemy of free speech.

Finally, the logic behind the effort to ban meetings or gatherings of hate groups runs directly counter to what is most needed. We believe the only effective way to push back against the Right is through a mass movement involving ever larger numbers of working people and those who have been most oppressed. In contrast, attempts to bar hate groups from libraries exclude popular participation and transfer the struggle into the hands of a few administrators tasked with applying regulations to room applications.

This does not mean there is nothing that ALA, libraries, librarians, or library staff can do to fight hate speech and hate groups. By its statements on behalf of democracy, equity, inclusion, and diversity, ALA has already taken a side in this struggle, as have the many libraries that have attempted to implement these principles. But more can be done. We urge ALA to take the following additional measures:

  1. Rescind the recent revisions to the “Meeting Rooms” policy and take down the “Hate Speech” page created in December 2017.
  2. Initiate a broader discussion of these issues within ALA.
  3. Encourage libraries to adopt and post statements on behalf of equity, diversity, and inclusion.[11]
  4. Encourage public libraries to adopt and post policies requiring that all meetings of community organizations in the library must be non-exclusionary, public, and publicly announced.
  5. Encourage libraries to actively approach community groups doing anti-oppression work—especially organizations of the most marginalized[12] populations—alerting them to library resources and services and making them aware of the availability of meeting spaces.
  6. Encourage libraries to collect resources and develop guides devoted to the history of fascism and the struggle against it.

More importantly, we believe librarians and library staff can participate effectively in the struggle against hate speech and hate groups. Some activities we recommend include:

  1. Joining and participating in organizations and coalitions devoted to a mass action perspective of combatting hate speech.
  2. Providing reference assistance to these groups.
  3. Seeking out and collecting materials and preparing guides to resources on the struggle against the far Right.
  4. Helping to organize and participating in demonstrations and picket lines against gatherings of hate groups.
  5. Attending and monitoring any meetings of hate groups that are held in libraries.
  6. Confronting and challenging the arguments and bigotry of hate groups.

[1] Heidi Beirich and Susy Buchanan, “2017: The Year in Hate and Extremism,” Intelligence Report, Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018 Spring Issue, February 11, 2018,

[2] Reuters Staff, “U.S. hate crimes rise for second straight year: FBI,” Reuters, November 1, 2017,

[3] “Report to the Nation: Hate Crimes Rise in U.S. Cities and Counties in Time of Division & Foreign Interference,” Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, California State University, San Bernardino, 2018, p. 3,

[4] “Hate Speech and Hate Crime,” ALA, updated December 2017,

[5] “Meeting Rooms: An interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,” ALA , Adopted July 2, 1991, by the ALA Council; amended June 26, 2018.


[7] This position, for example, is clearly suggested by the “Petition to Revise ALA's Statement on Hate Speech & Hate Crime” currently circulating.

[8] The Espionage and Sedition Acts, adopted during World War I, ostensibly to combat German espionage and sedition, were employed entirely against Socialists, Wobblies, and pacifists who spoke out against the war. Nearly 2,000, including the Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, were arrested under this repressive legislation during the war. The Deportation Law of 1918 was directed explicitly against aliens who opposed organized government, advocated the overthrow of the government, or belonged to any organization that advocated overthrow. It was the basis for the infamous Palmer raids in which 10,000 radicals were arrested, and hundreds were deported. The Smith Act against “fifth columnists,” which passed in 1940 in anticipation of World War II, was employed against leaders of the Socialist Workers Party during the war, and against the Communist Party afterwards. No fascists served prison time under the Smith Act. Harry Truman’s 1947 Executive Order 9835 requiring the screening of federal civil service employees for “loyalty” and allegedly directed against "Totalitarian, Fascist, Communist or subversive” organizations, inaugurated the McCarthy era, in which hundreds of Americans were stigmatized, fired from their jobs, and imprisoned for alleged connections to the Communist Party. Although the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) of the 1950s to 1970s was employed against some groups on the Right, its main purpose was to disrupt the legal activities of progressive movements and groups on the Left: socialist and communist organizations, the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the Black Panther Party, etc.

[9] “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act,” ACLU, Another bill currently under consideration is the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act,” again justified as a measure to combat anti-Semitism. The ACLU has explained that it could be used to sanction supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) for some statements and actions. BDS is a global campaign attempting to apply economic and political pressure on Israel to comply with international law. “How the Israel Anti-Boycott Act Threatens First Amendment Rights,” ACLU, July 26, 2017. See also Brian Hauss, “The New Israel Anti-Boycott Act Still Unconstitutional,” ACLU, March 7, 2018,

[10] Public Library Structure and Organization, National Center for Education Statistics, Technical Report, March 1996, pp. 4, 11,

[11] Some relevant language can be found in the ALA Policy Manual,, Section B3.

[12] “Different groups of people within a given culture, context and history at risk of being subjected to multiple discrimination due to the interplay of personal characteristics or grounds, such as sex, gender, age, ethnicity, religion or belief, health status, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, education or income, or living in various geographic localities.” European Institute for Gender Equality,