HOW public is a public library? That is the issue a federal judge had to decide in a case involving the Free Public Library of Morristown and Morristown Township, N.J. Nearly two years ago, the library adopted a set of rules aimed at barring a 41-year-old homeless man whose appearance and hygiene offended others in the library. In addition to requiring patrons to wear shirts and shoes, staff members prohibited such disruptive behavior as staring and making noises.
Federal judge H. Lee Sarokin ruled that libraries may establish certain specific policies governing patrons, such as setting minimal dress standards. But under the Constitution, he said, they cannot impose vague or broad regulations that bar people simply for staring, annoying others with their lack of hygiene, or failing to use library materials.
"The First Amendment protects the right to express ideas and the right to receive ideas," Judge Sarokin wrote. He added, "If we wish to shield our eyes and noses from the homeless, we should revoke their condition, not their library cards."
His ruling comes at a time when librarians in many communities find their facilities increasingly serving as daytime shelters for the homeless. The issue poses a challenge: how to balance taxpayers' rights to a clean, quiet setting conducive to reading and research while still giving the dispossessed equal access to information and culture.
"Compassion fatigue" is a phrase frequently used to describe Americans' ambivalent feelings toward those whose desperate plight demands attention and aid, from the Kurds to the Bangladeshis to the homeless in their own communities. But in the case of the homeless, simply posting "Keep Out" signs on library doors will never "revoke their condition," as Judge Sarokin so eloquently put it.
Libraries aren't shelters or soup kitchens. They cannot become a refuge for those who are drunk, disorderly, or mentally disturbed. But if public libraries start turning away those who merely look disheveled or smell offensive, what - and who - comes next? Already a few librarians have considered barring latchkey children who use the library as an after-school haven because they have nowhere else to go while their parents work.
For now, Judge Sarokin's decision ensures that the words "Free" and "Public," chiseled above the doors of many libraries, will keep open such doors and the democratic hopes they extend to all Americans.