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College's librarians barred from wearing American pride stickers

By The Associated Press,
freedomforum.org staff

09.19.01

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — While many Americans display patriotic messages in the wake of last week's terrorist attacks, librarians at one public university in Florida have been hushed.

Library Director Cathy Hoeth told her staff not to wear "I'm proud to be an American" stickers because they might offend the 200 foreign students at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers.

That policy may violate the staff's rights to free speech, said Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

"The problem is that employees don't give up their constitutional rights merely because they're in their workplace," Marshall told the Naples Daily News. "There is a balance to be struck here between the right of individuals to express themselves and the orderly operation of the public employer's business."

Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida, told the Fort Myers News-Press that speech shouldn't be muzzled because it might offend someone.

"If some people are offended by [another person's speech], that's the price of freedom in this country," Simon said. "If restrictions are imposed because somebody might be offended, then we have no free speech."

But Beverley Becker, associate director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, told freedomforum.org that librarians are governed by employment law, not the First Amendment. She added that tenure contracts might also be relevant in an academic setting.

Libraries should promote free expression and the free flow of information, she said, but at the same time librarians should be "neutral providers" of that information.

In its "Questions & Answers on Librarian Speech in the Workplace," the ALA says the following:

Q9. Since librarians have a special responsibility to protect intellectual freedom and freedom of expression, do librarians have a special responsibility to create a workplace that tolerates employee expression more than other professions?
A9. Yes. Libraries play a special role in ensuring the free flow of information in a democratic society. Librarians are often called on to fight censorship and resist efforts to restrict individuals from receiving information and expressing ideas. If librarians are denied the ability to speak on work related matters, what does this say about our own commitment to free speech? We need to demonstrate our commitment to free speech by encouraging it in the workplace.

Hoeth said staff members at the university's library could put the stickers on computers or in their cubicles. But she asked them not to wear them at the reference desk where the stickers could offend library users.

"We're doing everything we can to meet FGCU's standards of civility and tolerance," Hoeth said. "As a librarian, I want the highest respect for everyone coming to the desk."

She prefers that staff wear ribbons or flags without printed words on them, said Provost Brad Bartel.

The policy was a "judgment call" by the library director, Bartel said, because the school had no previous policies on this issue.

Meanwhile, a similar debate was sparked last week when an elementary school principal in Texas forced a second-grader to change out of a shirt bearing the U.S. flag.

According to FoxNews.com, the principal at McMasters Elementary School in Pasadena, Texas, on Sept. 14 barred the shirt because it didn't meet the school dress code. Principal Mable Pratt has since said the incident was a misunderstanding and that the issue "just blew out of hand," the news service reported.

Update

Some Florida driver's license records sealed during terrorist probe
Meanwhile, university library director rescinds ban on ‘Proud to be an American’ stickers; other First Amendment developments in aftermath of attacks.  09.20.01

Related

Berkeley firefighters told to remove Stars and Stripes from rigs
Fire officials fear big flags could make trucks targets during anti-war protests, but mayor says ban should be lifted.  09.21.01

Speak up at your own risk
After terror attacks, citizens from New York to New Mexico exercise free-speech rights, only to be shut down by compatriots.  09.26.01

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