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Little Free Library removal raises free speech concerns

January 20, 2019

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) — An art garden, dog park and splash pad are among the features planned for Gulley Park.

Not on the list is the Little Free Library, which workers removed to make room for a wider trail.

Resident Jo Ann Wardein installed the book-exchange station in 2013 as a Mother’s Day gift from her daughter. About a month ago she went to put in some books, only to find it gone.

“Nobody told me it was going to be taken down,” Wardein said to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette . “There were trucks over there, so I kind of assumed what had happened.”

Wardein called the maintenance supervisor for the Parks Department, who told her that city administrators had concerns over free speech because the Little Free Library sat on public property.

Little Free Libraries are part of a national movement that began in 2009. Most are small boxes in which anyone can take or place a book to share. There are at least 15 in Fayetteville.

Wardein said that as steward of the library, she took special care in monitoring what went into and out of it. She kept religious texts out, for example, as well as medical books with illustrations of anatomy in case any parents took issue.

City Attorney Kit Williams said that because the Little Free Library sat in a park, city employees wouldn’t be able to remove offensive material. The First Amendment’s freedom of speech doctrine gives governments virtually no power to regulate what might be in one of the libraries, and any offensive material might appear to be city-sanctioned, he said.

The administration could put the library back. Instead of removing certain material, it would have to remove the entire box if something offensive were put in, Williams said. However, the library has been there for five years without major incident.

“It’s really a judgment call,” Williams said. “We could leave them in, unless a big issue happens.”

A Little Free Library differs from public facilities such as City Hall or the Fayetteville Public Library because of the structure of each entity, Williams said. The free libraries are free, both in the sense of money and in the fact they are open to the public with no official system of checks and balances, he said.

Mayor Lioneld Jordan said he’s spoken with Wardein and wants to work something out. His staff is researching what other cities have done with Little Free Libraries on public land.

Tulsa, for instance, has six of the libraries in parks. The city partnered with a local nonprofit group, Transporting Education and Literacy into Open Spaces, which maintains and keeps watch on the libraries.

The group started the effort last year with an all-volunteer staff. The service the nonprofit group provides is free to the city, but the organization seeks donations.

Stephanie Younis with the nonprofit group said having the Little Free Libraries in parks helps catch foot traffic. Usually the boxes are near playgrounds, and children are drawn to them.

“The buck kind of stops with us in terms of making sure that everything is up and running,” she said.

Jordan said he was advised of the potential legal conflict a few years ago. Taking the library out to build the trail brought it back to his attention, and Jordan decided it best to re-examine the legal question, he said.

Jordan plans to meet with Wardein to make an arrangement. He said he wants to support Little Free Libraries but also protect the city from potential litigation. A deal that gets worked out with Wardein could then be applied to future book-exchange stations in parks.

“I’m huge on literacy and people being able to read what they want to read,” he said. “But it is on public property.”

The stations have rarely experienced problems with free speech, said Margret Aldrich with the national nonprofit group Little Free Library. The boxes sit at parks all over the country, she said.

Aldrich could remember only one controversial incident, which happened recently in Lincoln, Nebraska, Last summer, neo-Nazi literature was placed in the children’s books of about 20 boxes in the city, according to the Lincoln Journal-Star. The Anti-Defamation League got involved, and residents countered by placing signs next to the boxes with messages such as “hate has no home here” and “everyone is equal.”

The Lincoln article does not mention if any of the boxes sat on public property.

Aldrich said it’s an interesting question the organization hadn’t considered.

“We love that each Little Free Library starts to reflect the personality of that neighborhood,” she said. “We certainly hope that with a Little Free Library, the community around it really embraces the spirit of the Little Free Library, which is to build community, share a love for reading and really bring people together.”

There’s also a Little Free Library sitting in front of the Yvonne Richardson Community Center, a city-owned property. That one also was installed in 2013.

Center Director Tenisha Gist said she’s aware that administrators are trying to figure out how best to handle the situation.

“We love our little library. A lot of people utilize it,” she said. “We would love to keep it, but we don’t know.”

In the meantime, the Gulley Park Little Free Library is sitting in storage at a Parks Department facility, said Byron Humphry, parks maintenance supervisor. The parks staff is waiting to hear from the administration on what to do with it, he said.

Plenty of people used that library, Wardein said. She would replace books by the dozen. Perhaps thousands of books went out every year, Wardein said.

Wardein said she hopes the Little Free Library will return to Gulley Park. Otherwise, it’ll have to go on private property nearby.

“There’s a lot of negativity in our society,” she said. “I think we should be able to do anything possible to alleviate some of that negativity. I think the Little Free Library movement has been a fantastic movement to do that.”

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Information from: Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.nwaonline.com

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