Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Community Meeting Room Use Policy and MECR

Sukrit Goswami, Director Ted Conathan, President, Board of Trustees Saugerties Public Library
91 Washington Avenue
Saugerties, NY 12477

July 11, 2011
Re:

Dear Mr. Conathan and Mr. Goswami:
We write on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) regarding limitations on political speech imposed upon a series of events sponsored by Middle East Crisis Response (MECR)—a group of Hudson Valley residents and patrons of the Saugerties Public Library—to be held in your library’s Community Meeting Room. We strongly urge you to reconsider your decision to prohibit MECR from mentioning its sponsorship of these events and to limit permissible topics of discussion at these events as a condition to reserving meeting space at the Library.

It is our understanding that, after initially allowing Jane Toby, a member of MECR, unconditionally to reserve the Meeting Room on June 21, July 19, August 16, and September 20, 2011, in order to show a series of documentary films about the Palestinian people, Mr. Goswami indicated on June 21 that MECR would not be allowed to host any events in the library because it is, in his words, a “political group.” This reversal occurred on the eve of MECR’s first event and, while Mr. Goswami allowed that evening’s film to be shown, he insisted that MECR’s name could not be mentioned, and the group could not be associated with the screening.

Following that evening, we understand that Mr. Goswami told Ms. Toby that subsequent events would have to be cancelled. Mr. Goswami also told Ms. Toby that he had received three calls about the event, and that he made his decision based on the fact that MECR’s website included the following mission statement: “[MECR] is a group of Hudson Valley residents who are joined in support of human rights for Palestinians and an end to the US's aggressive policies in the Middle East.” We now understand that, as of yesterday, Mr. Goswami is allowing the events to take place, but only on the condition that discussion be limited to matters that are not “political” and that MECR not mention its sponsorship of the events.

This course of action raises a number of concerns, both practical and legal, about Mr. Goswami’s interpretation of the library’s Community Meeting Room Use Policy:
The First Amendment. The First Amendment clearly prohibits a library from denying access to a forum like the Community Meeting Room, or imposing conditions on such access, on the basis of a group’s ideological beliefs. Such a decision is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. The Supreme Court has unequivocally stated that “[t]he government must abstain from regulating speech when the specific motivating ideology or the opinion or perspective of the speaker is the rationale for the restriction.”1 The decision to prohibit MECR from using the Community Room for any purpose other than showing the film (i.e., prohibiting “political” discussion) and to bar MECR from advertising its sponsorship of the film thus appears to violate this group’s First Amendment rights.

We understand that the Library’s Use Policy states that the Community Room is “available for use by non-profit organizations for educational, cultural, recreational or civic purposes,” but that groups may not use it for “private, for-profit, political, entrepreneurial or commercial purposes.” A straightforward reading of the rule would indicate that it prohibits partisan political meetings (e.g. events in support of political candidates), since a broader reading of the word “political” would be exceedingly difficult to define, and thus open to the very viewpoint discrimination the First Amendment prohibits. There is no clear dividing line between “educational” or “civic” discussion about the films to be shown and “political” discussion of the same and of MECR’s political viewpoint more generally. The Library’s decision to permit screening of the film, presumably as an “educational” or “cultural” event, but to prohibit broader discussion of MECR and the issues raised by the film as “political,” raises concerns about viewpoint discrimination and illustrates how such vagueness can be exploited for discriminatory purposes.

This is not merely a hypothetical consideration, as it would appear that the ban on meetings with “political” purposes has not been uniformly applied by the Library. This lack of consistency supports the inference that the Library’s decision in this case impermissibly rests upon the views of MECR. The Saugerties League of Women Voters, for example, has hosted several events in the library, including a forum with local school board candidates. The League of Women Voters, of which the Saugerties branch is a local member, explicitly describes itself in its mission statement as a “political organization,” and goes on to state that “the League is wholeheartedly political and works to influence policy through advocacy.”2 In addition to the League, the group FrackAction, which is “engaged in a long-term campaign . . . seek[ing] to expose the false claims of the gas industry and mobilize a citizen movement to protect our health and our future,”3 hosted a screening of the film Gasland in the Community Meeting Room in March of this year, followed by a discussion that included “information, announcements of actions being planned, time and place of meetings and other ways for [citizens] to get involved.”4 In none of these cases did the Library threaten to deny access, limit the topics for discussion, or prohibit the sponsoring groups from promoting their involvement.
1 Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the Univ. of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 829 (1995) (“When the government targets not subject matter, but particular views taken by speakers on a subject, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant. . . .”) (citations omitted); see also Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist., 508 U.S. 384, 394 (1993) (finding unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination in the context of censorship of a religiously-oriented film series). 2 http://www.lwv.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=About_Us (last visited July 7, 2011). 3 http://frackaction.com/content/about-us (last visited on July 6, 2011). 4 http://saugerties.uber.matchbin.net/bookmark/11441888-Letters-to-the-Editor-February-17-2011 (last visited on July 6, 2011).

The harms of censorship. In addition to the serious legal concerns raised by Mr. Goswami’s actions, we would urge you to consider the harmful effect that such censorship can have on communities. Libraries are centers of information, news, and open discourse, and they betray their commitment to diversity of expression when they seek to censor unpopular views. Indeed, the American Library Association has included this very scenario in its Library Bill of Rights: "VI. Libraries that make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use."5 The ALA’s own interpretation of that Bill of Rights goes on to state unequivocally that "the library may not exclude any group based on the subject matter to be discussed or based on the ideas that the group advocates. For example, if a library allows charities and sports clubs to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library should not exclude partisan political or religious groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities.”6

For all of these reasons, we ask that you reinstate the original Community Meeting Room reservations that MECR applied for without conditions on the speech or expression of MECR or the events’ participants. We also ask that you clarify your Meeting Room Use Policy to avoid the constitutional issues regarding the meaning of “political” meetings raised above. Please let us know as soon as you have done this. If we do not hear from you by Friday, July 15, 2011, we will contact you to follow up on our request. Please respond to this letter by calling Corey Stoughton, NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney, at (212) 607-3300 (or by email at cstoughton@nyclu.org). We are also happy to discuss this matter further if you have any additional questions.
Sincerely,

Corey Stoughton
Senior Staff Attorney New York Civil Liberties Union
Linda Berns
Director, Lower Hudson Valley Chapter New York Civil Liberties Union

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