Free-er speech: Controversial display prompts library policy changes

Some critics thought NOW’s sex-ed display in the library was too pro-choice and unsuitable for children. Staff photo Some critics thought NOW’s sex-ed display in the library was too pro-choice and unsuitable for children. Staff photo

Nine months have passed since library patron Mike Powers voiced his concern over a sex-ed display in the front lobby of the main branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. Following April’s public outcry, on January 25 the library’s board of trustees approved proposed changes to its public display policies that will clarify its stance on freedom of speech.

The display that offended Powers was sponsored by the Charlottesville National Organization of Women and featured books on sex education and birth control, along with the slogan “My Body, My Choice.” Powers says the display was not appropriate for all ages and argues that the display’s “prominent front-lobby positioning” at the central branch implied an endorsement by the library.

“[The display] had a political advocacy slogan and it was very confusing whether the library itself was endorsing a political advocacy position,” Powers says, “That, to me, didn’t seem to match the mission of the library.”

Central Library Manager Krista Farrell says that despite objections to the display, it did not violate the library’s previous display policy. However, she notes that the controversy “highlighted the need to make some adjustments and updates to the existing policy.”

Among the changes, the library plans to remove the phrases “balanced” and “age appropriate” from its policy because the meaning of these phrases is “open to interpretation” and caused disagreement between patrons and board members, says Farrell. The new proposed policy would say freedom of speech displays will be “unfettered” unless they contain obscene or defaming materials.

In addition to somewhat loosening the restrictions on freedom of speech displays, the library plans to enforce new rules on where these displays may be seen and require that each display have a sign indicating sponsorship.

“Realizing most library visitors do not come to the library to view displays,” the proposed policy reads, “the ‘Freedom of Speech’ display cases shall be located in areas generally used by adults at a minimum of 20 feet from the front door.”

Brian LaFontaine, president of the board of trustees, believes these changes will help to clarify the library’s role in offering an equal opportunity for freedom of expression, saying the library has “a responsibility to all of our patrons no matter their political, religious, cultural or social beliefs.”

LaFontaine adds, “We hope, if adopted, the new displays and handouts policy will offer the opportunity for educational displays that will support freedom of speech, a tenet all libraries are charged with, yet be sensitive to the concerns some of our patrons may have on subject matter or presentation.”

Although the process has taken longer than he imagined, Powers says that overall he is supportive of the proposed changes and thinks these changes will better identify the library as a neutral organization.

“It’s going to be more clear that these messages are from an outside organization,” Powers says. “If they feel it’s an important library function to provide a platform for free expression, then I think this is the best compromise.”

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