To justify its commitment to the principals of privacy and confidentiality, the ALA asserts, “Lack of privacy and confidentiality chills users' choices, thereby suppressing access to ideas. The possibility of surveillance, whether direct or through access to records of speech, research and exploration, undermines a democratic society,” and that “One cannot exercise the right to read if the possible consequences include damage to one's reputation, ostracism from the community or workplace, or criminal penalties.” While this justification may have been inspired by the USA Patriot Act, one can certainly interpret these statements in terms of the fallout from recent Tennessee Legislation, SB 710, which reads, in part: “Public library directors shall have the authority to reasonably restrict the access of any person listed on the sexual offender registry.” Note that Lynette Sloane, Director of Regional Libraries for theTennessee State Library & Archives, posted this response to discussion of SB 710 in a message to the TN-Libraries listserv (TN public libraries listserv) on August 15, 2011: "The new amendment should be used only if a problem or issue arises and should be applied and interpreted only as written. Otherwise, no action related to this law is necessary by the Library Director or Library Board."
However, in attempting to legislate common sense, the Tennessee House and Senate ruling on SB710 has opened the door to reactionary policy changes such as the executive order from Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett barring all sex offenders from Knox County Public libraries. Burchett’s quoted views include the statement, "I'm kind of sick of this notion that we have to offer equal access to things, they can still access everything on a computer or have other people check books out" (www.wbir.com).
I find it a very interesting parallel that among the criteria presented in this bill by which a library director might determine “the reasonableness of the restrictions” (SB 710) is the phrase, “The chilling effect of the use of the library by other patrons if the offender is not restricted,” which echoes the word choice in the ALA’s assertion noted above that the “[l]ack of privacy and confidentiality chills users’ choices.” The idea of barring the doors of one of the most democratic institutions in our society to anyone based on a layman’s interpretation of or assumptions about the circumstances of that person’s past certainly leaves me cold. After all, among the six policies stated in the Library Bill of Rights is the assertion that “[a] person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views”.
Beyond the concerns about civil rights violations inherent in the way SB 710 has been interpreted in Knox County--concerns elucidated in a letter to Mayor Burchett from Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN)-- are the pragmatic concerns of how to enforce such a restriction. Signs have been posted “on the entrances to all the library branches saying that registered sex offenders are banned” (Metropulse, 14 Sept 2011) but librarians report being uncertain about how to identify sex offenders if they should try to breach the law, and Knox County Library Director Myretta Black “said that the sex offender registry would not be cross-checked against the database of library patrons", but in an interview a couple of hours later, [Mayor] Burchett said it would be (Metropulse, 14 Sept 2011).
Visions of how funds and personnel might be employed toward enforcement of such restrictions can quickly turn dystopian, although there is evidence that some libraries do not hesitate to employ patron-identification technologies -- such as biometrics -- that seem more like the realm of the dystopian literature on our shelves rather than the tenets of ALA policies drafted to protect our patrons’ rights. The deputy director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, responded in an article in American Libraries (May 2005) about the Napierville, Illinois, public library’s decision to use fingerprint-identification technology in order for patrons to use the libraries’ internet workstation. She noted that “requiring a fingerprint to use a library could discourage some people.... Libraries need to ensure that no one is denied access to library resources and that policies are in place to guarantee users’ privacy by neither creating nor preserving unnecessary records. As with filtering and privacy concerns, library staff also need to commit to a conversation with their users, communicating frequently and well about changes in technology.”
The ACLU sometimes has to defend the freedoms of citizens that make our communities uncomfortable at best, if not downright enraged (such as the right for white supremacist organizations to gather publicly); they do so vigorously and tenaciously, to ensure that the door remains open for the rest of us to be protected by constitutional freedoms. All of our library patrons deserve the same freedoms and protections, and we know that as library professionals we can use our common sense to manage our facilities in a way that protects all of our patrons, even the most vulnerable, without legislation that is contrary to the very nature of libraries dedicated to equitable access and opportunity to all--especially those to whom other resources may be denied.
Karyn Storts-Brinks is the librarian at Fulton High School, Knoxville, Tennessee. firstname.lastname@example.org