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Handbook for Library Trustees of New York

Intellectual Freedom, Censorship and Privacy

Public libraries play a unique role in the support and preservation of democracy by providing open, non-judgmental institutions where individuals can pursue their own interests. To the extent that their budgets permit, libraries attempt to collect materials and information that represent varying points of view on controversial topics. But as the repositories of our culture, both the good and the bad, libraries sometimes contain information or ideas that are controversial or threatening to some people. Expressions of disapproval, dismay and even outrage over library materials 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.

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 to any media. The responsibility for children's reading and viewing falls to the parents, not the library.

The library board and 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.

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, Web pages, 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. It is essential that every library adopt a carefully considered and judiciously written policy statement tailored to the library's own community (Education Law §260(12)). This 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.

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 (guidance is available).

Additional sources on intellectual freedom and privacy issues can be found through ALA at the Intellectual Freedom Committee and IFC Privacy Subcommittee.

A standardized procedure to handle patron complaints must be a component of the library's policies. Trustees must recognize and acknowledge a citizen'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 should dictate what materials are suitable for others in the public library, nor should limitations be imposed based on the format of materials.

Censorship challenges can be difficult, but they are an inevitable consequence of the commitment to provide open and free access to all of the world's information resources. 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

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