Just sign here, or maybe not?
Jamie LaRue, Douglas County Library Director
Editorial by Jamie LaRue, Douglas County Library Director
It was just a matter of time. Libraries generate a lot of traffic – from 1,000 to 2,000 people a day depending on the library’s size. Our patrons represent a good cross-section of the community.
Library users tend to be engaged in other ways. For instance, many of them are registered to vote. So it’s no surprise that the petition-gatherers have found us.
As it happens, free speech is one of the core values of the public library. Advocating for various issues, asking for signatures or donations for political causes, is a whole category of free speech, and clearly protected by the United States Constitution.
Of course, there are two kinds of petition-gatherers: some are respectful and polite, and others are pushy and argumentative.
For a long time, the library’s general procedure has been this: you need to let us know you’re here, you have to stand outside (not inside) the library, you can’t block passage either into or out of the library, and you can’t harass our customers.
Just asking somebody to sign a petition is not harassment. Let me emphasize this point: all any library patron has to say is “no thanks,” and keep walking. It’s a useful skill to develop.
If the gatherer keeps following you, berates you, grabs you, or stands between you and the door, that’s harassment. When that happens, we’ll kick them off the property, at least. Just let us know.
The library doesn’t have anything to do with who shows up. Their presence does not imply our endorsement. Not too long ago, we had people gathering signatures for this fall’s Amendments 60 and 61, and Proposition 101, whose provisions would shut down libraries all across Colorado. I think, personally, that’s a really bad idea.
But support for free speech doesn’t just mean “speech you agree with.” Lively political debate, informed with current and relevant information, is mostly a good thing. Libraries happily supply intellectual ammunition to both sides of nearly any issue.
But as the petitioners get more common, so too do various unpleasant incidents. I saw one guy talk a young woman out of $5 she clearly didn’t want to give. One pair of petitioners created a subtle blockade in front of the door. One guy demanded that we supply him with a table and chair. (No.)
We can’t supervise these people every moment.
On the other hand, we can place a few reasonable limits: we can constrain them to a particular location, well away from the front door. We can limit how much time they have for a particular cause, and we can shoo them away when they break the rules.
So the library board is considering these options. We may well create some marked off zones for petition-gatherers to congregate. We may have to establish a limit, a maximum hours per cause per week just to make sure that everybody gets a chance.
If you have thoughts about this, feel free to email me at jlarue @ dclibraries.org. Our concern is to both ensure the constitutional right of expression, but also to preserve your right to enjoy the library without having to run a gauntlet every time.
Meanwhile, advocates for causes might do well to remember that obnoxious behavior, in-your-face rudeness, turns people AGAINST your cause.