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Libraries plan to designate areas for petitioning

Thursday, April 26, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

After a month of consultations with the Law Department over the language of the rules governing petitioning on library property, the Austin Public Library may have found a compromise.

Instead of limiting petitioning to sidewalks surrounding the libraries, which groups have said restricts their access to library customers, the department is suggesting designating a location at each of the 21 library branches where groups and individuals can hold a public forum.

So far, spots for public forum have been designated at 10 branch libraries. There are currently no diagrams of where these will be held on each property.

At the last Library Commission meeting, Austin Public Library Director Roosevelt Weeks said, “What we would like to do is limit it to a branch in each City Council district.”

However, Commissioner Roxanne Bogucka said she thought a forum “should be possible at every branch.” She explained that many individuals who are gathering signatures are likely doing so after researching which branch it would be most beneficial for them to canvass at based on customer demographics and Council district. Not allowing them a choice in libraries is “not cool,” she said.

Currently, there is an informal hold on petitioning restrictions at the libraries. While the library department is formulating its new rules, there is simply a behavioral restriction on those participating in public forums on library property. Anyone engaged in those activities cannot impede access to the library or harass customers.

“What’s wrong with just continuing like that? Why do we have to have designated areas at a branch?” asked Commissioner Catherine Hanna.

Weeks explained that since libraries cannot discriminate against those arriving on the premises, there is potentially a risk for those with a radical agenda to canvass right outside the library doors.

Hanna played devil’s advocate to her own argument by providing an example of a hypothetical way that petitions could conflict with library customers. “Let’s say the petition is for open carry. I (could) demonstrate my right for open carry while you’re taking your toddler to story time.”

Although there is the potential for such a situation to occur on library property, Commissioner Wendy Todd argued that one of the rules of a democracy is the ability to speak out. She said that limiting citizens’ access to areas where they can do so is curtailing the free speech of those who have legitimate civic concerns. She noted that this was never an issue until IndyAustin began petitioning against CodeNEXT. “It just seems coincidental that this particular petition has a lot to do with something that costs the city a lot of money, which is the building code,” she said.

The Library Use Rules are currently under review because two individuals with IndyAustin who were gathering signatures for a CodeNEXT petition outside of public libraries were cited with criminal trespass warnings. Attorneys Bill Aleshire, Bill Bunch and Fred Lewis, who leads the group Community Not Commodity, then issued a cease and desist warning to the city of Austin. The citations have been rescinded as the city works to clarify its position on the matter.

Weeks explained that providing clarity through a set of rules was essential to give library staff authority when speaking with protesters or canvassers who were interfering with the libraries’ daily functions. “I don’t want (employees) feeling like they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

Although some of the commissioners were hesitant to recommend more stringent sanctions on where Austinites could engage in their civic responsibilities, Commissioner Aimee Finney reminded the commissioners that although it doesn’t seem like a big deal now, “in November 2019, it’s probably going to be pretty big business.”

The newly drafted rules will return to the Library Commission at its May meeting for review and recommendation to Council.

Photo by Jane Hammons made available through a Creative Commons license.

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