Military recruitment in the library, and how you can get busted for interfering with it

There’s a brief story in the current issue of The Progressive titled, “Vet Prosecuted for Opposing Recruitment in the Library. It doesn’t go into great detail and is essentially an interview with one person, Tim Coil, the guy who got busted for interfering with a military recruitment effort going on at the Stow-Munroe Falls Public Library in Ohio. His interference consisted of placing notecards with messages written on them in view of people being recruited.

Tim Coil raises a couple of interesting points in his interview. When he claimed that he was exercising his free speech rights, the library director, Doug Dotterer, responded that it is against the rules to disturb people in the library, and his notecards were doing that (disturbing the military recruiters). Tim’s response was that the brochures that the recruiters had put out on tables were disturbing to him. I think that that response is actually a serious argument and should not be treated as facetious. Military recruiters in fact are a provocative and for many people an offensive presence in a public library, moreso than a person dressed “inappropriately” for example, who might be expelled from the library for that reason. The brochures that the recruiters had set out on tables could be treated the same way that any controversial literature placed on tables would be treated (that is, in normal situations in a library, not tolerated).

While I would be offended to see military recruiters using a public library for their recruitment activities, as I think about how a library would be justified in banning them, I’m not sure if I have a satisfactory answer, because I am not sure, without knowing more facts, how I can treat it as different, from a free-speech standpoint, from the interest among a minority in banning a meeting by a controversial group that they don’t like. I am assuming, of course, that the library is treating these military recruiters on an equal basis with other groups who might use the library, which may not be the case. But in terms of the general question, I can find arguments for banning the military recruiters that are consistent with justifications for banning speech that are in fact accepted in practice, but which I do not agree with. For example, speech that ridicules religion is often seen as going “too far” because it offends a minority of people, even though it is only a minority of people who are offended; I think speech attacking religion should almost always be acceptable. (Often it’s Muslims, and often it is Catholics. I am always shocked to hear Catholic priests claim that some speech is unacceptable because it does not respect the Catholic faith. Why the hell should I be required to respect the Catholic faith?)

On the other hand, I am assuming a comparison between the military recruiters’ use of the meeting room and its use by other groups. That comparison may be inappropriate for a variety of reasons, depending on the facts. For example, ordinarily, a library meeting room is used for meetings that, while open to the public, are not directed at the public using the library. If the military recruiters are set up in order to recruit library users, then it does seem to me that they are in fact attempting to interfere with people who are going about their business. So, it seems to me that I need to know more facts before I can offer my own opinion about this.

However, I do think that Tim Coil’s free speech claim in attempting to interfere with military recruiters in a public library raises some really interesting questions. I look forward to seeing this case analyzed once the facts are better researched. I think we all acknowledge that free speech has limits, but I think in librarianship we often fail to explore the basis for establishing those limits as well as we should. On the right and the left, the reasons given are often passionate rather than analytical, and, to offer a big opinion, I think that that, along with economic inequality, is one of the major impediments to a well-functioning democracy.

Thanks to Jason Morris for sharing the link with the SRRT list.

5 comments on “Military recruitment in the library, and how you can get busted for interfering with it

  1. I agree–I’d need more information about the situation before I could form a full opinion about the situation. What bothered me most (aside from the military recruitment part, of course) was that the library director was quoted as saying (as I remember–the link doesn’t seem to be working) “this is my library,” and that’s why this action isn’t allowed. With all due respect to Mr. Dotterer, no, it’s not your library, or at any rate it’s not yours more than it is anyone else’s. Libraries are a public good, and they belong to the people who support them.

  2. I think it is amazing that so many “this is my right” situations occur at public libraries. I believe it stresses the importance of libraries to society. It is a place for everyone. And everyone has to respect the rights of everyone else. The public library is THE place in the community to determine the limits of your rights.

  3. If two recruiters were talikng to a young man who wanted to know about the military, weren’t the Coils violating that young man’s civil rights?

  4. As I said, I think I need to know more. Were the Coils actually disrupting a conversation or did the recruiters simply not like the fact that there was opposition to them? Under what kind of arrangements were the recruiters in the library? What were their actual activities in the library? What did the Coils actually do?

    I’m not going to make assumptions in order to tell a story that I would like to hear.

Comments are closed.