Library meeting rooms for all, for real

by Wesley Teal


The OIF’s reinterpretation of the library bill of rights to protect hate groups and hate speech is immoral and indefensible. Libraries are for everybody, and that is the best argument for excluding hate groups. Hate speech and hate groups are easy to identify, those arguing otherwise are not acting in good faith. Hate speech does not increase free speech. No person who supports hate speech can support free speech; the two are mutually exclusive, as are hate and intellectual freedom. No law requires ALA to advocate libraries allow hate groups to use their spaces and resources. We have a moral duty to challenge unjust laws, so let’s get to challenging.


On June 26, 2018, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom amended Meeting Rooms: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights to include:

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 explicit addition of protection for hate speech and hate groups rightly appalled many. Unfortunately, it only makes more explicit the ALA’s existing position on hate groups. In Hate Speech and Hate Crime, last updated December 2017, the ALA states:

Libraries should comply with the ideals and legal requirements of the First Amendment. We make room for offensive, bigoted, and biased speech in the libraries if that speech is simply that: just speech.

The reaction against the OIF’s new interpretation and the #NoHateALA movement it has spawned has at least opened up a long-needed debate that may realign the ALA’s position toward human decency and away from white supremacy. Because the truth is, if libraries are to be the beacons of liberty, democracy, and equality that we so often claim they are, we can never allow hate groups or hate speech within libraries.

Sadly, however, there are many white librarians who defend the place of hate groups and hate speech with a series of mostly facetious arguments. It is my hope to address a few of their arguments below.

But libraries are for everybody!

One argument in defense of hate speech and hate groups is that libraries are for everyone. Yes they are, which is why they can’t be for hate groups.

The purpose of hate groups is to oppress those they hate. While the specific targets of their hate varies from group to group, the targets are usually groups of people who are already oppressed. They are often people who suffer systematic exclusion and oppression in our society to one degree or another. They are often the people who stand to benefit the most from the resources and services libraries offer. The mere presence of members of a hate group in a library is enough to make many feel unsafe, even those not targeted by the group.

Allowing hate groups to use library spaces further the goals of the hate group. It provides them with a space to continue their work of stripping away the rights of others and gives them a veneer of legitimacy. Spending library money to purchase resources on behalf of hate groups or individuals espousing hate, funds these people’s mission of oppression. To provide space or resources for hate groups is to participate in their hate.

Libraries are either for hate groups and those fortunate enough not to be targeted by such organizations or they are for everybody but hate groups. If we really want libraries to be for everybody, then we must make them for everybody and not just those sheltered by white supremacy.

But who defines hate speech?

Another argument, and a favorite of the director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom James LaRue is that hate speech and hate groups are hard to define. This argument is, of course, nonsense.

Merriam Webster defines hate speech as: “speech expressing hatred of a particular group of people.” defines it as:

speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.

Both these definitions are simple, straightforward, common sense definitions, ones that I imagine resemble LaRue’s own definition of hate speech very closely. Hate speech is painfully easy to define and recognize.

Hate groups are likewise easy to identify. Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as:

an organization that – based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities – has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.

The SPLC also maintains a list of hate groups, making it even easier to quickly and accurately identify them.

With some basic definitions established, it is now easy to see how nonsensical this tweet by LaRue is:

Trevor Noah was talking about civility last week. He showed clips of people talking about MLK, Jr., who was, in their minds, promoting hate speech. That's the issue: who decides? In the US, the law says the government can't discrimnate by viewpoint. That protects LGBT & others.

Here, LaRue makes the curious decision to cite a black immigrant citing a black civil rights leader as defense of hate speech, despite the reality that Martin Luther King Jr. did not go about making state expressing hatred of particular groups based on national origin, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability. While some did accuse King of hate speech, such accusation never held merit, to pretend they did or do is insupportable. For good measure he also claims, without giving evidence, that protecting hate speech somehow protects LGBT rights, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. LaRue doubles-down on the same line of argument in his defense of the OIF’s new interpretation on the official OIF blog, stating:

ALA [...] recognizes that “hate groups” is a remarkably elastic term, prone to be thrown about by both sides of a political spectrum. It has been attached to book discussion groups, Black Lives Matter, Muslim groups, and others.

Here he once again inexplicably insists that hate is hard to identify and suggests that the term “hate group” is little more than a political insult, despite the existence of more than 950 well-documented hate groups currently active in the United States. He once more links black civil rights to hate and then adds Muslims, a religious group that has been the target of widespread hate speech and violence for decades.

If one is predisposed to give LaRue’s bizarre arguments the benefit of the doubt, it is possible to interpret them as lazy, poorly thought out, flippant, and lacking in empathy. Yes, using targets of hate groups to justify supporting hate groups is in poor taste, but he didn’t mean anything by it. On the other hand, LaRue has spoken at multiple state library association conferences over the years (Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas to name three) where he’s spoken eloquently on the rhetorical tactics library advocates can use to persuade others to their point of view, so it’s possible his words are carefully calculated. This line of argument seems finely-honed to play on liberal guilt by attempting to shame those who admire Martin Luther King or support Black Lives Matter or defend Muslim rights into defending hate groups. Whatever motivations LaRue had to cite an assassinated civil rights leader, an anti-lynching human rights group, and regular targets of hate crimes like the LGBTQ+ and Muslim communities to defend hate groups, it’s hard to assume such arguments are made in good faith.

But free speech!

Declaring oneself a defender of free speech seems to be the main go-to reaction for those who defend the place of hate speech in libraries and broader society. Unfortunately for this argument, hate speech by its nature opposes and reduces free speech. What those who use the “free speech” argument uphold is not free speech, but white supremacy.

No person of color, no Jew, no Muslim, no LGBTQ+ person, no person with disabilities, no person in any marginalized class has ever benefited from the existence of hate speech. None of them ever will. Hate speech has led to slavery, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, targeted police harassment, legal, educational, workplace, and housing discrimination, sexual assault, race riots, the migration of Mormons to Utah after violent persecution in several states, the corralling Native Americans onto isolated patches of undesirable land as part of a series of genocidal wars, the forced migration of my own ancestors from Appalachia to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, the murder of 6 million Jews and millions of other “undesirables” during the Holocaust, and countless other acts of white violence against marginalized people. The existence of hate speech has never once expanded the speech rights of the oppressed. It has cost them loss of life, liberty, and prosperity, but it has never benefited them.

Even if we ignore the reality that hate speech has never helped strengthen free speech, there is still a fundamental flaw in turning to ideals of free speech to defend hate speech: it is impossible to support both free speech and hate speech. Hate speech seeks to silence. It seeks to terrorize. It seeks to maim and kill. Hate speech is unavoidably violent in its intent. Hate speech is always a threat. Hate speech is always an incitement for violence. Hate speech opposes free speech. Where hate speech exists, the speech of those targeted by it cannot safely exist. Where hate speech exists, those targeted by it cannot be safely present. Where hate speech exists, free speech cannot.

Those who argue that free speech and hate speech are one in the same ignore the true nature of hate speech. They ignore the speech of the marginalized, and thus, like the hate groups who seek to silence marginalized people, won’t miss such voices once their gone.

Fortunately, despite the fairly widespread (and extremely white) defense of hate speech as free speech within our profession, some libraries are doing the right thing and banning hate groups. One such library is the Toronto Public Library, which made their case eloquently in a staff report:

Support for free speech does not translate into tolerance for hate speech [...] The public library is a welcoming, inclusive public space that supports the social justice principles of equity and inclusion and will always stand up against hate speech.

This should not be a controversial position.

But intellectual freedom!

Similar to the free speech argument, it has been argued that banning hate groups would erode intellectual freedom. This argument is mostly a variation on the “free speech” argument addressed above.

Hate groups are by their nature opposed to freedom, intellectual or otherwise. They seek conformity and often use violence to attain that goal. To pretend that hate speech and hate groups contribute to or are an important part of intellectual freedom depends entirely on a white supremacist notion that the beliefs of society’s most indefensible members are more valuable and important than the beliefs, than the lives, of the millions of Americans who are targeted by hate groups in both speech and action.

If we are interested in defending intellectual freedom, we must defend the freedoms of those who wish to maintain and expand such freedoms rather than devoting so much energy to advocating on behalf of hate groups that seek to reduce freedom, often by violent means.

But the law!

For all libraries, allowing hate groups to meet within their space is immoral. For those libraries that are public institutions, it has been argued that the Constitution requires them to allow hate groups and hate speech. Finally, a defense of the OIF’s position that has some merit. Maybe not as much as its advocates might think, but some, at least, finally.

The argument is that hate speech and hate groups are protected by the 1st Amendment. Several Supreme Court rulings lend credence to this argument. However, this does not mean that there are no legal arguments to be made against hate speech and hate groups.

Despite the 1st Amendment, some forms of speech are still illegal in the United States. Hate speech is by its nature violence and is an incitement to violence. It can thus be argued that hate speech either writ large or specific kinds of hate speech are illegal under incitement to riot, intimidation, criminal threat, or assault laws. Anti-discrimination laws make hate speech and other forms of discrimination, at least from employers. It’s not much a stretch to acknowledge that allowing hate groups access to library spaces and resources creates a hostile and discriminatory workplace.

Hate groups seek to strip other Americans of their rights, thus hate groups pose a direct challenge to the constitutional rights of those they hate. Hate groups have directly undermined the rights of others to speak, assemble, to practice their religion. By providing material aid to such groups in the form of meeting space or library materials, it can be argued that libraries are violating the 14th Amendment right to equal protection for those people hate groups target.

By supporting hate speech and hate groups, libraries end up supporting the numerous illegal acts committed in the name of prejudice. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey conducted by the National Institute of Justice there are as many as 191,000 hate crime committed every year. This is what the prevalence of hate speech and hate groups gets us. If the OIF and its supporters are truly concerned about laws, why are they willing to advocate libraries make space for those committing and encouraging violent law breaking?

Additionally, much of the legal “justification” for the ALA’s current stance rests on precedence set by the Supreme Court. However, the Supreme Court’s decisions are not immutable. There’ nothing in our current laws that couldn’t be overturned by a single Supreme Court ruling. In 1896, the court ruled in Plessy v Ferguson ruled that state-sponsored segregation was constitutional; this was overturned in 1954 by Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that banning same-sex sexual contact was constitutional, a decision the court overturned in 2003’s Lawrence v Texas. In fact, the list of Supreme Court rulings the court has overturned is surprisingly long. The Supreme Court is not now and has never been the final arbiter of what is moral or right. History has shown, with its willingness to overturn bad precedence, it’s barely even the final arbiter of what is legal. To blame the Supreme Court or any laws for taking an immoral stance is no justification for such a stance.

Even if the law requires public institutions to allow hate speech, the ALA is not required to publish policy statements that explicitly list hate groups as groups that must be allowed in libraries. That it chose to do so rest solely those individuals who made that choice. They were not compelled to, they chose to. To blame that choice on existing laws is to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions. It is a watered-down, even-more-spineless variation on the Nuremberg defense, since there were no orders given only a choice freely made.

Even if it is the law of the land to protect hate speech, that does not make it moral or just. There was a time when the ALA was willing to challenge, rather than support, unjust laws as exemplified by the Resolution on the Use and Abuse of National Security Letters, regarding the PATRIOT Act. Librarians were once at the forefront of challenges to the PATRIOT Act and its national security letters. It’s time we revive that spirit. Let us stand up for our patrons, let us stand up for library workers, let us stand up for all those targeted by hate groups and hate speech. Let us go to court if we must. Let us go to jail if we must. Hate groups have no place in any library. They have no moral right to occupy public spaces and we need not concede they have a legal right.

To take a cue from LaRue, let me cite Martin Luther King, Jr. King who stated: “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” In times such as those we are living in now, it is vital that we not forget this moral responsibility, so let all library workers declare as King did:

we will take direct action against injustice without waiting for other agencies to act. We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly and cheerfully because our aim is to persuade. We adopt the means of non-violence because our end is a community at peace with itself. We will try to persuade with our words, but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts. We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise, but we are ready to suffer when necessary and even risk our lives to become witnesses to the truth as we see it.

In conclusion

Whenever a person argues in favor of allowing hate speech and hate groups, they argue in favor of the violence, suffering, and crime caused by such speech and such groups. Instead of bowing to those that willingly uphold white supremacy and oppression, let us work to make libraries true beacons of free speech and intellectual freedom, let us make them places where the voices of even the most marginalized and oppressed in our society can flourish.