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Handbook for Library Trustees of New York State (2023 Edition)

Content from the latest edition of the Trustee Handbook.

Intellectual Freedom, Censorship, and Privacy

Public libraries play a unique role in the support and preservation of democracy by serving as open, non-judgmental institutions where individuals can pursue their own interests. To the extent that their budgets permit, libraries attempt to collect materials and share information that represent varying points of view on diverse topics that reflect the life experiences of a variety of community members. As the repositories of our shared culture, libraries sometimes contain information or ideas that are controversial or threatening to some people. Expressions of disapproval, dismay and even outrage over library materials or programs are not uncommon, even though public libraries explicitly avoid doctrinal positions or the espousal of a particular point of view. 

As difficult as it may be in some cases, trustees must be very careful to separate their personal opinions from the philosophy of the library as an institution and their duty to uphold the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees freedom of speech, and the courts have long held that this guarantee extends to the right to receive information freely. Free access to information is the cornerstone of the American public library and trustees must ensure that their libraries have policies and procedures that prevent any form of censorship. 

Every person has the right to read, or not to read, any book; to view or listen, or not to view or listen, to any media or program. The responsibility for children's reading and viewing falls to the parents, not the library. Boards should fully support the right of every parent to control what their child reads or attends, but that right does not extend for parents to restrict what other children read, attend, or to limit the books and resources that are available to young people through the library. 

Related Policies

The Board and Library Director should adopt comprehensive collection development policies to guide the selection of materials. This policy should reflect the principles of the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights and Freedom to Read Statement.  

A new resource, the Public Library Collection Policy Template and Guide, developed through a partnership of the Public Library System Directors Organization of New York State (PULISDO) and the Empire State Library Network (ESLN) is now available, free of charge, to all library boards in New York State. 

The library should also have a clear Programming Policy that lays out why the library offers programs, how programs are curated, and the opportunity, or not, for the public to reserve the library’s meeting space for its own meetings, not endorsed by the library. This policy should also include a request for reconsideration form to manage a complaint or challenge to a program curated by the library. 

Bulletin Board, Display and Exhibit policies also fall into this area of policy-making. These policies should make it clear where displays and exhibits are in the library, who curates these, who has the right to remove items from bulletin boards, displays and exhibits, and again, how a community member could challenge the inclusion of something in a library produced venue. 

It is essential that every library adopt a carefully considered and judiciously written Internet Use policy statement tailored to the library's own community (Education Law §260(12)). Library access to the Internet raises a variety of challenging intellectual freedom issues. While the library has made a conscious choice to acquire the items in its collection, no such decision has been made about the resources on the Internet. The library merely provides an access point to billions of databases, websites, chat rooms and other resources without making a judgment about the reliability, accuracy or appropriateness of any of them.

The Internet is the broadest information resource available, and it belongs in every public library. However, the Internet also contains material that is illegal; material that is illegal for children but not for adults; and material that may offend community standards. Some very complex First Amendment questions are at stake in public libraries' use and provision of Internet access. This policy statement should include:

  • The purpose of library Internet access;
  • A disclaimer about the nature of the information on the Internet;
  • Prohibitions against engaging in illegal activities or accessing illegal materials;
  • Access allowances and restrictions, such as time limits, sign-ups, etc.;
  • A statement of parental responsibility for children and children's access;
  • Explanation of appropriate use;
  • Penalties and consequences for misuse;
  • Explanation of privacy issues;
  • An explanation of filtering software, whether or not the library uses it; and
  • A statement on whether or not the library uses software to reset a computer and browser after a patron uses it, so they are clear if their search history is saved on the computer or not. 

Staff procedures should forbid any comment on patron choices and guarantee the privacy of patron information requests. The state's Library Records law (Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR) §4509) prohibits access to any information that links the name of a library user to any library material, information request, or any other use of the library, unless the library is presented with a subpoena or search warrant from an authorized legal entity. The library should have a Law Enforcement Inquiry Policy to ensure compliance with the state law on patron confidentiality.  It should be noted that the library is permitted to use the data and information they collect in its own operations but should never sell or share it with others unless required by law.

Additional sources on intellectual freedom and privacy issues can be found on the website of the American Library Association. 

As noted above, a standardized procedure to handle patron complaints through a request for reconsideration form must be a component of almost all public-facing policies. Trustees must recognize and acknowledge a community member’s right to question any Board action and every trustee must be willing to listen to challenges and explain the library's policies and the reasons for them. The Board should project an open, concerned image without accommodating censorship demands. Responses to challenges must be rooted in the library's policies, regardless of the issue. No person or group outside of the library Board should dictate what materials are suitable for others in the public library, nor should limitations be imposed based on the format of materials.

Request for Reconsideration Forms facilitate the articulation of a complaint from a community member who may disagree with the inclusion of a title or subject matter in your collection, in a display, or through a program on the library’s event calendar. However, they also ensure that one person is not able to choose what your community has access to without a proper review by the Library Director and Board, who have the responsibility and authority to not only defend the First Amendment rights of the community but to represent the full community, not just one person’s viewpoint. It is the Library Director and Board’s responsibility to follow their own policy and procedure. Communication around a challenge should be prompt and transparent to the complainant. 

Censorship challenges can be difficult, but they are an inevitable consequence of the commitment to provide open and free access to all the world's information resources. The defense of the right to read, of intellectual freedom, and against censorship can be one of the more challenging acts you may be called upon to assist with as a trustee. Take the time to educate yourself and ensure you know what to do before a reconsideration request may arrive. With good policies in place, a library board will be well-prepared to handle challenges and to defend the right to read. If a censorship issue arises, the library can obtain additional help and advice from the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Office.

Related Policies and Documents:

  • Collection Development (including Request for Reconsideration and Weeding)
  • Copier/Copyright
  • Exhibit/Posting (including Request for Reconsideration)
  • Freedom to Read (ALA)
  • Freedom to View (ALA)
  • Fundraising/Gift Policy
  • Lending Rules (including Non-Resident Borrowing)
  • Library Bill of Rights (ALA)
  • Local History
  • Meeting Space/Equipment
  • Patron Behavior/Code of Conduct
  • Patron Complaints
  • Patron Confidentiality (including Law Enforcement Inquiry)
  • Programming (including Request for Reconsideration)