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Libraries and the First Amendment

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Freedom of speech is not only about outward expression but also knowledge and expression consumed. According to the American Library Association (ALA), libraries are unbiased, non-partisan forums where all patrons should have the right to read what they wish without fear of retribution or censure. Over the years, courts have affirmed that first Amendment rights apply to public meeting rooms, political canvassing and even (to a certain extent), pornography.

First Amendment – Public Meeting Rooms -  For purposes of the First Amendment, Public Libraries are considered a “Limited Public Forum.” This means that while Libraries, as a public space, can not prevent people from exercising their First Amendment Rights in the Library, the Library CAN control Time Place and Manner – or, in other words, a Public Library can implement policies that somewhat dictate how, when and where the expressions occur. However, these policies and procedures MUST be content neutral, which means that Libraries can not have procedures that limit expression according to the topic or subject of the expression. For example, if a library mandates that a meeting room can only be used for non-commercial use (no sales or business use), and they refuse use to a local crafter who wants to have a show and sell articles, then they can’t hold their Friend’s group book sale in the room, or let Girl Scouts sell cookies.

First Amendment – Political Canvassing/Petitioning – Off all Free Speech rights, political speech is the most protected under the law. The Framers of the Constitution were particularly concerned about political speech and the ability to “speak truth to power” and criticize the government. Therefore, attempts to restrict any type of political speech is typically very difficult. Public Libraries, as limited public forums, CAN limit political canvassing to the outdoors, and can require that canvassers or petition gatherers refrain from obstructing access to the library entrances and exits. However, libraries cannot remove political canvassers or petition gatherers nor can libraries banish these practices from library property.  Libraries must also treat all canvassers, protesters, petitioners, etc., the same regardless of the topic or subject of their political activities.

Related Links:
ALA General Library Policy Development LibGuides page
New Mexico State Library, Collection Development Policy Workbook 
ALA Intellectual Freedom - Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights -  Restricted Access to Materials 
ALA Intellectual freedom – Library Meeting Rooms and Displays 
Public Libraries Online – Ethics of Library Meeting Rooms