ALA Rolls Back Inclusion of Hate Groups in Bill of Rights Revision

An online ALA Council poll, held August 9–16, voted 140–4 to rescind a controversial meeting room interpretation. The Library Bill of Rights will revert to the 1991 version that had previously been in effect.


This story has been updated with the results of the Council poll.




An online American Library Association (ALA) Council poll, held August 9–16, voted 140–4 to rescind the controversial meeting room interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights adopted at ALA's Annual Conference in New Orleans in June. The wording will revert to the 1991 version that had previously been in effect. ALA's Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) has established a working group to draft a new meeting rooms interpretation and share it prior to October 1, in anticipation of Council’s vote at the 2019 ALA Midwinter Meeting in Seattle.

Ninety of ALA's 179 councilors were required to vote, with 75 percent of those voting needed to approve the measure. A total of 146 councilors, representing 82 percent of the eligible voters, took part in the poll.

IFC's new working group new working group includes Shauntee Burns-Simpson, New York Public Library, chair, Committee on Diversity; Sara Dallas, Southern Adirondack Library System, NY, chair, Committee on Professional Ethics; Martin Garnar, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, chair, Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services (ODLOS) Advisory Committee; Ray James, Institutional Survey, Intellectual Freedom Committee; Emily Knox, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, vice president, Freedom to Read Foundation and member, Association of College and Research Libraries Professional Values Committee; Johana Orellana, North Richland Hills Library, TX, IFC; Kim Patton, Kansas City Public Library, KS, IFC; Brooke Sheets, Los Angeles Public Library, Public Library Association liaison to the IFC; John Spears, Pikes Peak Library District, CO, IFC; Julia Warga, Kenyon College, OH, chair, IFC. Staff liaisons to the working group include Jody Gray, director of ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services and James LaRue, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF).

“I would like to express my gratitude to ALA members and staff for their collaboration and feedback as we work to respond to language found within updates to the Library Bill of Rights,” said ALA President Loida Garcia-Febo. “The ALA continues to strive to provide resources that support Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and intellectual freedom. We can only do so when all of our voices are heard. Today’s vote does not end conversations regarding the interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, but rather continues our exploration regarding how we can support the profession’s needs.”


The June revision, proposed by IFC regarding the purpose of public library meeting rooms, stated:

"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—had librarians taking to Twitter in opposition and asking people to contact ALA and demand it change the language. Many tweeted 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.

LaRue said that nothing was new in IFC's interpretation. Rather, the wording was changed to specifically define the meeting rooms section after being asked 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 told LJ. "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 said, his main comment on the situation came down to this: "ALA is about diversity and intellectual freedom, not just one or the other."

In a July Twitter thread, Baltimore County Public Library 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, which reads in part: “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?" said 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 sent out several days before the social media outcry, and LaRue felt 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 said. "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...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."

In a July 10 OIF blog post, LaRue stated: "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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