Institutions of Learning or Havens for Illegal Activities: How the Supreme Court Views Libraries
74 Pages Posted: 29 Jun 2012
Date Written: 2004
The role of libraries in American society is varied: libraries act as curators and repositories of American culture's recorded knowledge, as places to communicate with others, and as sources where one can gain information from books, magazines and other printed materials, as well as audio-video materials and the Internet. Courts in the United States have called libraries "the quintessential locus of the receipt of information,"' places that are "dedicated to quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty," and "a mighty resource in the free marketplace of ideas." These positive views of libraries are often in sharp contrast with views by some courts that the materials contained in libraries are dangerous. The tension between the concept of a library as a place for learning and the collector of the quality materials with that of the library as a place for illicit materials and behavior is a long-running one.
The United States Supreme Court has had three major cases in its history addressing the appropriate role of libraries and the activities allowed within library premises. The Court has attempted to walk a fine line between viewing libraries as purveyors of high culture and dangerous places. This uncertainty about the role of libraries runs throughout the Supreme Court opinions as well as the subsequent court opinions that come after these important rulings. This article takes the position that the views of the Supreme Court often conflict with how librarians view themselves. These views of libraries by the courts have had a strong effect on patrons by limiting the information options of patrons, such as school library books, public library Internet-access, and the library profession, by forcing librarians to act in accordance to the Supreme Court's views of their appropriate role.
This article argues that the Supreme Court's views are frequently based on a limited understanding, which fails to recognize that libraries and the services they provide fall within the scope of a public forum. The lack of government understanding of the role of libraries and librarians can have extensive implications for institutions, their employees, and the public.
Keywords: libraries, Supreme Court, internet filtering, First Amendment
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