Enforcement of the Code of Ethics Q&A

The ALA Committee on Professional Ethics (COPE) produced a sample set of questions and answers to clarify the implications and applications of the ALA Code of Ethics.


1. Is there a procedure to enforce the Code of Ethics?

As a voluntary membership organization, ALA does not enforce the Code of Ethics for a variety of reasons. The Code states that the principles in the Code are “expressed in broad statements to guide ethical decision making.  These statements provide a framework: they cannot and do not dictate conduct to cover particular situations.” If ALA attempted to enforce the Code, as a non-licensing professional society, the ALA would have two possible actions in response to a violation of the Code of Ethics:

  • Suspend or expel a member from membership, or
  • Admonish or censure an individual or institution, publicly or privately.

However, because membership in a professional society may affect an individual's career, US antitrust laws permit punitive action affecting membership: only for a good cause or only after affording the member due process. Both of these approaches present significant difficulties for ALA to enforce the Code.

A. Good cause will be found to exist only if the member has engaged in conduct which the professional society has a legitimate interest in prohibiting or controlling, which may not be the case with individual infringements of the Code of Ethics in certain situations.  

B. To meet due process requirements, the accused must have an opportunity to be heard, to be represented by counsel, and to undertake an appeal. Some professional associations have, for example, a mini-trial in front of a panel of judges. In such mini-trials, the panel typically makes a recommendation to the association's board of directors, which makes the final determination on punishment. A separate body must act as appellate reviewers. This is problematic for ALA because the resources are not available to investigate accusations, convene a panel, or provide a panel of judges with legal protection if they are sued for any harm done to a career as a result of their judgment.


2. Has ALA had an enforcement procedure in the past?

The enforcement of ALA documents has focused on the Library Bill of Rights. Over the years, there have been several Committees and processes put in place to investigate complaints about a violation of the Library Bill of Rights. The first was the Program of Action in 1969. The three complaints investigated under this Committee made it clear that cases involving intellectual freedom also might raise issues of tenure, academic status, ethical practices, and a variety of other matters. A revised Staff Committee on Mediation, Arbitration, and Inquiry (SCMAI) in 1971 handled cases involving tenure, professional status, fair employment practices, ethical practices, and due process as set forth in ALA policies. This was replaced in 1990 by the Standing Committee on Review, Inquiry, and Mediation (SCRIM). Lack of funding caused the SCRIM to cease operations in September, 1992. Since 1992, there has been no attempt by ALA to enforce the Library Bill of Rights. The Code of Ethics was never explicitly a part of any of these Committees.


3. What can be done about violations of the Code of Ethics?

Libraries are encouraged to adopt the Code of Ethics as a policy. With the ALA Code of Ethics as a local policy, enforcement moves to the local level. Violations of the Code of Ethics may also be a violation of local, state, or Federal law. For example, many states have laws regarding the confidentiality of a library user’s records, which is also addressed in Principle III of the Code of Ethics. In this case, dealing with a violation through the court system would be a possibility. Principle V addresses the workplace, another example of where there are many laws to protect the rights and welfare of workers. While an employer or employee in violation of this Code of Ethics principle should be accountable, there are many agencies at the state and Federal level designated to handle these infractions.


4. How do other professional associations enforce codes of ethics?

Many examples of codes can be found with an internet search. Websites of organizations with which ALA may have some commonality, though not in all cases, are listed below. Only those organizations with some kind of license or certification that can be withdrawn seem to have enforceable codes. In some cases, membership to an organization can be withdrawn, but this may not have real major consequences for the individual if membership is not required by the individual’s profession.


5. Why have a Code of Ethics if there is no enforcement?

The answer to this question can be found in the preamble to the Code:

As members of the American Library Association, we recognize the importance of codifying and making known to the profession and to the general public the ethical principles that guide the work of librarians, other professionals providing information services, library trustees and library staffs.

Ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict. The American Library Association Code of Ethics states the values to which we are committed and embodies the ethical responsibilities of the profession in this changing information environment.

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom, and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.


6. What can I as an individual do to help ensure that the values and the principles of the Code are upheld?

The Code offers guidelines for responsible behavior and sets forth a common basis for resolving ethical dilemmas encountered in daily practice. You can obtain a copy of the Code and post it where you and others in your workplace can see it daily. You can make yourself aware of local, state, or federal laws concerning ethical conduct and how that conduct might be enforced in the workplace. You can also encourage adoption of the Code as local policy and advocate for ethics education as a necessary component of staff development. Most importantly, you can make a personal resolution to live daily the values and principles embodied by the Code, to engage in an ongoing process of professional growth and ethical self-reflection, and to model ethical behavior and decision-making.


7. Where can I find more information?

Additional questions about the Code of Ethics can be directed to the Committee on Professional Ethics c/o the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom by phone at (312) 280-4226 or by email at oif@ala.org.


Adopted January 2009, by the Committee on Professional Ethics; and amended January 28, 2019.