Free Speech Debate Erupts with ALA's Inclusion of Hate Groups in Revision of Bill of Rights Interpretation

Are hate groups the same as sports, religious, social, civic, partisan political organizations? When it comes to using a public library's meeting room, the ALA says, "Yes."

This story has been updated with comments from ALA OIF director James LaRue and Martin Garnar, co-chair of ALA's Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Implementation Working Group.








The new wording on a Library Bill of Rights interpretation of the purpose of meeting rooms set off a controversy that had librarians sparring with ALA staff and prompted questions that spark mini debates of their own: Should libraries be neutral? Who decides what is a hate group? Is it OK to put a limit on free speech and library space when staff or patrons feel uncomfortable or threatened by a particular group? Where does protected speech cross the line into harrassment or threat? Can a library protect marginalized patrons and keep a commitment to being open to all members of a community?

At the American Library Association’s (ALA) Annual Conference in New Orleans, the organization’s Council adopted three revisions to the Library Bill of Rights that were proposed by the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC). The specific working in the revision regarding the purpose of meeting rooms started an ongoing, emotional debate among library and ALA staff.

The revision states:

"Public libraries are bound by the First Amendment and the associated law governing access to a designated public forum. A publicly funded library is not obligated to provide meeting room space to the public, but if it chooses to do so, it cannot discriminate or deny access based upon the viewpoint of speakers or the content of their speech. This encompasses religious, political, and hate speech.

"If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library cannot exclude religious, social, civic, partisan political, or hate groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities.”

The inclusion of hate groups—wording which was not in the draft of the proposed interpretations—has librarians taking to Twitter in opposition and asking people to contact ALA and demand it change the language. Many are tweeting using the hashtag #NoHateALA.

"@ALALibrary this is not what our profession stands for & we should never welcome hate in the name of being neutral. #NoHateALA" librarian Katie Quirin Manwiller wrote.

"Support Both Principles"

Library Journal asked Martin Garnar, co-chair of ALA's Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Implementation Working Group, his thoughts on the revision and the ensuing debate. He emailed his response:

My concern is that this debate is being framed in a way that makes it impossible to support both principles: either you support free speech or you support marginalized communities.

Yes, under the First Amendment, we have to let everyone use our facilities if we make them open to the public and if they’re following the rules.

Yes, we can continue to engage with those who have been historically (and are currently) oppressed through intentional programming, outreach, and services.

From my perspective, this is how we solve the dilemma: We support both principles. We continue to support free speech and fight the laws that target marginalized communities.

We continue to confront and dismantle the structural inequality in our profession and our society, and continue to work with marginalized communities to improve their access to information. And we continue to have thoughtful discussions about how to make this a “both and” situation as opposed to “either or.”

On the same day that Council adopted the revised Meeting Rooms interpretation, it also adopted the revised interpretation on Library-Initiated Programs as a Resource, which includes the following statement: "As stated in 'Equity, Diversity, Inclusion: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights,' Socially excluded, marginalized and underrepresented people, not just the mainstream majority, should be able to see themselves reflected in the resources and programs that libraries offer.

"Libraries should actively seek to include a variety of programming options representing diversity of genres, formats, ideas, and expressions with a multitude of viewpoints and cultural perspectives that reflect the diversity in our communities."

Both interpretations reflect principles of the association, and our challenge is to find a way to uphold them at the same time.

ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) director James LaRue says nothing is new here, they are just specifically defining the meeting rooms section after being asked specifically if a library had to allow a KKK meeting in its building. The Public Library Association didn't accept the OIF's original clarification which read as if it too closely tied religion to hate groups, according to LaRue. So the organization sought the widest term for what was being discussed.

"We said the generic term we need here is hate groups," he says. "The honest truth of it is we inserted it because of a question in the field and we felt like we wanted to address the issue head on instead of dance around it."

He spent hours on Twitter responding to reaction, citing court cases and the First Amendment and, after a lot of thought, he says, his main comment on the situation comes down to this: "ALA is about diversity and intellectual freedom not just one or the other."

In a Twitter thread, librarian Tyler Vachon explained his opposition. In part, it read:

“Libraries don't exist in a thought experiment. We're buildings with real people in them. People who see a branch willing to grant space and legitimacy to hate groups and recognize that they're no longer safe in that building. Librarians no longer have their backs. “We are way past the point of there being room to discuss things in abstract like "gosh should the Klan be able to use our meeting space? Should fascists?" These movements are gaining momentum and any institution willing to grant them quarter shares responsibility for that.

“Many of us serve communities that are already terrorized by these groups. Show up for them. Be willing to fight back when they may not feel safe to do so. Don't let this toxic worship of neutrality and inertia enable fascism in your community."

The IFC is charged with recommending “such steps as may be necessary to safeguard the rights of library users, libraries, and librarians, in accordance with the first amendment to the United States Constitution and the Library Bill of Rights as adopted by the ALA Council.” ALA includes a page on free speech protections on its website. “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content. To be clear, the First Amendment does not protect behavior that crosses the line into targeted harassment or threats, or that creates a pervasively hostile environment. But merely offensive or bigoted speech does not rise to that level, and determining when conduct crosses that line is a legal question that requires examination on a case-by-case basis.”

But what if the groups make employees or other patrons feel threatened or uncomfortable?

"We’ve talked about this and this has been a theme for ALA for a while, which is to say, how do you model civil and civic discourse? How do you establish an environment in which people do feel welcome?" says LaRue. "I think it's a stretch to say you build a safe environment by forcing everybody to shut up if somebody claims to be offended. I don’t think that’s a safe environment."

The press release on the revisions was actually sent out days before the uproar and LaRue believes people didn't get all the details before voicing their opposition.

"Particularly on Twitter, I notice a tendency to pull things out of context and I think we need to remember in ALA nothing gets decided quickly," he says. "There were lots and lots of discussions about this. And there were lots of public librarians and school librarians and academic librarians looking at this. "The fact that it generated so much energy, I think means it’s an important topic. So let’s talk about it, but let’s try not to savage each other in the process. Let’s assume that we share values."

A blog post LaRue put up on Tuesday put it this way: "ALA does not endorse hate groups. It does not seek to normalize hate speech, but it recognizes that hate groups is a remarkably elastic term prone to be thrown about by both sides of the political spectrum. It’s been attached to book discussion groups, Black Lives Matter and others."

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Jen Moore

Can we at least now stop running baffled articles about how few people of color work as librarians? With policies like this we should not be surprised. Determining where the fuzzy lines are on hate speech can be a genuinely difficult problem. Offering guidance on that might be a good idea. Explicitly welcoming hate groups is going to get people hurt and possibly killed.

Posted : Jul 12, 2018 11:30


Perhaps it would have been better to use the phrase “controversial speech”.

Posted : Jul 12, 2018 08:39

Penelope Librarian

And though I can't be telling you anything you don't already know (said with a smile), the Southern Poverty Law Center recently deleted from its website its list of "anti-Muslim extremists" that included Ms. Ali, and paid a $3.4 million settlement to at least one person on that list who decided to challenge his inclusion. Yes, she ran afoul of the SPLC, and the SPLC ran afoul of truth. All of which supports the idea that both Ali and the SPLC are still both entitled to use space in a public library on the same basis as anyone else (also said with a smile).

Posted : Jul 12, 2018 01:57

Max Macias

Libraries are NOt neutral! Please read this post I wrote last year. ✊🏼

Posted : Jul 12, 2018 01:31

Penelope Librarian

Three thoughts. 1. Less than two weeks ago at a colleagues' library in Texas, a homeless man was arrested for sexual assault in a bathroom stall of an 11 year old boy. The next day, Texas libraries still welcomed the homeless, as was their responsibility under the law. 2. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a heroine to millions around the world. She has never done one thing that would raise issues from the standpoint of the First Amendment. That someone might cite her as the kind of person that librarians should be wary of as a "hatemonger" and by extension think about not granting speaking/meeting space to, is exactly why the ALA needed to reinforce this policy. She is part of the Muslim Reform Movement. She is as #ownvoices as a person can get. If she is unfamiliar, here is her biography: 3. There may be no room for civil discourse with the KKK, or the Spartacist Youth League or Antifa for that matter, but that is utterly irrelevant to this policy for public libraries.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 10:57

wrong 'un

And yet, though I can't be telling you anything you don't know, as you know so much about her, she ran afoul of the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose reports and lists are approvingly cited, regularly, by this website.

Posted : Jul 12, 2018 12:02

Penelope Librarian

And though I can't be telling you anything you don't already know (said with a smile), the Southern Poverty Law Center recently deleted from its website its list of "anti-Muslim extremists" that included Ms. Ali, and paid a $3.4 million settlement to at least one person on that list who decided to challenge his inclusion. Yes, she ran afoul of the SPLC, and the SPLC ran afoul of truth. All of which supports the idea that both Ali and the SPLC are still both entitled to use space in a public library on the same basis as anyone else (also said with a smile).

Posted : Jul 12, 2018 01:56


I truly don't understand what the crime of one individual experiencing homelessness has to do with anyone else experiencing homelessness. Nor do I understand how a group of people who actively and purposefully come together in the name of hate, possibly to plan [hate] crimes (as officially recognized by local laws) compares to people who passively belong to groups by birth or circumstance.

Posted : Jul 12, 2018 07:15

Melissa Correll

yes, this

Posted : Jul 12, 2018 09:51

Anne Ursu

The language in LaRue’s quotes is deeply troubling. . There is no room for civil discourse with the KKK and other groups that preach racist violence. Once we allow those ideas into the category of “civil discourse” we normalize their rhetoric. LaRue seems bemused that someone might be “offended” by groups that preach white nationalism and advocate for racial violence. Someone who does not understand why hate groups make libraries unsafe and scoffs at the idea that people might “claim to be offended” by their rhetoric has no business running an institution designed to serve the public. If he would like to learn more, perhaps he might visit his local library.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 10:33


Good for the ALA. People like the #NoHateALA librarians routinely tar anyone they disagree with as "hate groups." They should not be allowed to throttle free discourse by setting themselves up as arbiters of what is and is not acceptable speech. It's un-American.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 10:29

wrong 'un

This is a way to have it both ways, look to the past and the future as regards deference to speech protections. It feels, indeed, like a temporary step, does it not? "We were so inflamed to defend the right of a group to convene in a public space, that we deliberately namechecked 'hate groups'!" But also: we carefully established that there are goats, and we can infallibly tell them apart from the sheep ... Someone like Ayan Hirsi Ali - tricky? I recall seeing her book very prominently displayed at my library, at one time. Did libraries contribute to the rise of this hatemonger? You will have to do a good deal of monitoring of reputation, who's in and who's out, to keep your list current should you, you know, ever want to make use of it.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 09:48

Melissa Correll

Extremely disappointing. Naming hate groups specifically can be read as an invitation. I am ready to leave the association over this.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 09:35

Gray Falcon

Just this week a ninety-two-year-old man was beaten into critical condition for being Latino. This is what’s at stake here. Not just some abstract notions of “freedom”.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 03:02

anonymous coward

This is fearmongering.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 06:31


This is the truth. Maybe you should be afraid.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 08:35

Charles Lehmann

As a pastor in a church body (of over two million members) which is often called a hate group because of our position on homosexuality, abortion, and a few other social issues, I applaud this decision. We literally hate no one (except Satan himself). It's perfectly possible to love someone AND disagree with some of their choices. If hate groups are excluded, who defines the hate group?

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 09:36

Mom Laz

This was an unncecessary addition because it should have been a right all along! If a library is open and provides public meeting space, it provides public meeting space. Done. This also begs the question of who is defining "hate" speech? I have seen organizations put on "hate lists" that should not be there. Labels really aren't helpful. They are very divisive, and don't quite square with your commitment to inclusivity. So what's the real reason? Publicity? Disappointing.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 05:39

Penelope Librarian

I appreciate that the statement affirmatively mentioned so-called 'hate' groups, because the public understandably recoils from these groups, but it was unnecessary. Public libraries must be scrupulously neutral in welcoming groups to use their facilities, no matter whether the group is an Antifa chapter, the KKK, or the American Horticultural Society. Libraries offering their space on a content-neutral basis are not welcoming anyone, anymore than police are welcoming far-left anarchist or far-right racist groups when they protect them from violence and permit them to exercise their First Amendment rights. Instead, we are both doing what seems to be a dwindling art in the United States, which is our job as publicly paid employees according to the law. If we are not willing to do that, we should work for private institutions. There are plenty.

Posted : Jul 11, 2018 12:38



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