Ohio Libraries Under Fire for Program Cancellations

Ohio Libraries Under Fire for Program Cancellations

March was a month that embroiled two Ohio public libraries in charges of censorship from local community groups.

In a decision sharply criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Cleveland Heights–University Heights Library cancelled a March 12 showing of Searching for Peace in the Middle East, a documentary film screening cosponsored by the library and Cleveland Peace Action. The screening was scheduled as the first of three events in a series, the latter two of which are still scheduled to proceed as planned at the library April 6 and May 15.

Library Director Stephen Wood said in the March 13 Cleveland Plain Dealer that the first part of the series was cancelled because library staff found the 30-minute movie, which was produced by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, to be “controversial and biased.” A day earlier, Jeffrey Gamso, legal director of the ACLU of Ohio, had characterized the action in a letter to Wood as “blatant and shameful censorship of particular views,” adding, “A library may not withdraw its sponsorship of a film series because some members of the local community may be offended by it.”

The April 6 event will feature a week’s worth of Middle East news footage shot by a Youngstown network TV affiliate, and the May 15 program is scheduled to be a panel discussion about the regional conflict.

On the other side of the state, the Cincinnati-based social-conservative group Citizens for Community Values filed a lawsuit March 7 charging that the Upper Arlington (Ohio) Public Library violated the group’s First Amendment rights by canceling its February 27 meeting-room reservation for a program entitled “Politics and the Pulpit” several days after approving it. The affidavit filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio indicates that UAPL wrote the plaintiff group February 21, a week after okaying the program, asking that CCV “refrain” from its original plan of engaging in “a time of prayer petitioning God for guidance . . . and singing praise and giving thanks to God for the freedom we have in this country to participate in the political process” so that the program would be in compliance with the library’s meeting-room policy, which prohibits “inherent elements of religious services.”

“The library does not refuse the use of meeting rooms for discussions,” Ruth McNeil, library community-relations manager, told the March 8 Columbus Dispatch. “You can discuss faith, family values, or war. This is a place for public discussion. The opportunity to meet here was and still is open to them.”

Citizens for Community Values, which has sparred with libraries for at least a decade over filtering material it deems harmful to minors, is represented in the lawsuit by the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit that defends the rights of Christians to practice their faith. “The government cannot treat people with nonreligious viewpoints more favorably than people with religious viewpoints,” Tim Chandler, legal counsel for ADF, said in a March 7 news release. “Christians have the same First Amendment rights as anyone else in America.”

Posted on April 4, 2008. Discuss.