Kingston Public Library patron conduct code faces scrutiny

At its March 2016 meeting, the Kingston-Frontenac Library Board passed a revised Code of Conduct for library patrons in this Ontario community. Opposition to the new Code started to grow amid growing concern that the policy was particularly aimed at certain classes of library patrons: the homeless and the poor. The new Code included the following:

  • Pay attention to personal hygiene. Offensive body odour and/or offensive clothing/bag odour will not be tolerated.
  • Wear appropriate attire, including shirts and footwear. Patrons are expected to be actively engaged in a library service or event. Loitering or sleeping is not permitted on Library premises. Loitering is defined as sitting or standing idly about; lingering aimlessly without using library services, regular and/or prolonged attendance at the library without using library services.
  • Anyone choosing to disrespect the policies of the Library and refusing to modify behaviour will be asked to leave. This could result in suspension of Library privileges, eviction from the Library, cost-recovery charges, and/or prosecution.

A local group calling itself Libraries are for Everyone set up a Facebook page  and a website  and they asked the Library Board to:

1. Conduct a public, transparent community consultation regarding patron conduct and revise the KFPL Code of Conduct accordingly. The code of conduct should also be accompanied by a clear and fair reinstatement and appeals process.

2. Offer authentic anti-oppression and mental health first aid training for library staff.

3. Investigate ways to support and foster a positive relationship with vulnerable populations through ongoing public consultation and through the formation of a Vulnerable Persons Committee that includes library staff, representatives of organizations supporting youth, people without homes and precariously housed people, people with mental health challenges, people who identify as LGBTQ, and other vulnerable populations as well as representatives from these key demographics.

4. Formally evaluate the planned renovations for the Central Branch to ensure that the renovations support our entire community, including its most vulnerable members.

At first, the Board stuck by its decision and issued a release justifying the new policy

“This policy is not aimed at any specific group but rather provides the tools and framework for staff to ensure that the library is a safe and welcoming environment for the community as a whole.”

Interest in the story grew as there were several press accounts about the controversy including local reports in and the Kingston Whig-Standard as well as broader coverage in the National Post and on CTV News.

At its most recent meeting  (April 27th) the Board acceded to the public pressure, and voted to rescind the controversial policy, restore the previous policy, and conduct a broader public consultation on the issue. While this latest action is a welcome move and will avert what might have been a significant legal challenge, many questions remain about why the Board would pass such language in the first place. In a statement after the meeting,

After the meeting, Libraries are for Everyone said:

Libraries Are For Everyone were thrilled to see the huge turnout at the KFPL Board of Directors meeting last night in support of our delegation asking that the new KFPL Code of Conduct be revised, and pleased that board member Jim Neill’s motion to defer the Code’s implementation until public consultation can take place and be incorporated was passed.

We would, however, like to condemn in the strongest terms possible KFPL Board Chair Claudette Richardson’s comments to the Kingston Whig-Standard following the meeting that “the alarm was undue” and that “[F]rankly, the intent of the code of conduct as it was crafted will not change.” We ask Ms. Richardson for immediate clarification regarding whether she was speaking on behalf of the Board as a whole. . . .

As things stand now, Libraries Are For Everyone is asking for a prompt response from the library clarifying whether the Chair was speaking on behalf of the Board, so the controversy is far from over. As the consultations in Kingston unfold, it is clear that they will be getting much broader attention and scrutiny due to the events of the past few months. There are also some significant lessons that can be taken by other library boards.

This case is reminiscent of a controversy from the 1990’s in the Town of Morristown, New Jersey between the public library and local police and a homeless patron by the name of Richard Kreimer. The patron, with the assistance of the ACLU, brought an action challenging the constitutionality of library’s patron exclusion policies. While he was successful at the trial level Kreimer v. Bureau of Police for the Town of Morristown, 765 F.Supp. 181 (D.N.J.1991), the library prevailed on appeal (958 F.2d 1242, 3rd Cir. 1992).

It remains an open question how a Canadian court would resolve this issue, but the case could turn on how carefully and precisely the patron conduct rules are crafted. A court would likely look at whether the rules are proportionate to the objectives of the library and specifically whether less burdensome alternatives could have been drafted.

In my view, the language used by the Kingston Board is very problematic as it is vague, overbroad and is  reasonably likely to result in discriminatory and arbitrary enforcement. Libraries have a legitimate objective in formulating and enforcing reasonable patron conduct rules, but they need to be carefully developed keeping in mind the underlying principle that public libraries are for everyone and that all are welcome to use the facilities.