Library ban sign of the times?

A retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the News & Review

When Chico State University “library officials” reportedly banned weekly newspapers from bins in Meriam Library recently to cut down on “congestion,” the Chico News & Review, the Synthesis and The Buzz protested that the library is a state-owned building that should be open to all newspapers. Then officials also banned the Orion, the campus student newspaper, until a lawyer in the Chancellor’s Office in Long Beach could clarify the situation.

This ban has been in the works for a while, and it’s clear to me that library officials did some homework already, because congestion is a term often used by municipalities that try to remove newspaper vending racks from sidewalks.

Basic distribution rights are not in question here. They trace back to a 1938 U.S. Supreme Court ruling (Lovell v. Griffin) that the right to publish means little without the companion right to distribute. Also, the Orion has maintained since its founding in 1974 a privileged distribution position in campus buildings with high foot traffic because it is a laboratory newspaper produced by a class for campus display. The library lived with the congestion, and the janitors picked up the messy dropped pages and ad inserts. Other weeklies soon piggybacked on the Orion’s privileged library site with tacit university approval.

In play are so-called time, place, and manner restrictions on free expression, with emphasis on place and manner, not time of display. Place involves whether the distribution point of expression is a privileged public forum, which the library is.

Because officials have allowed the Orion, especially, and other newspapers to distribute from the library for so many years, a judge would no doubt find the building a de facto (in fact) if not de jura (by law) public forum, the same as a public street, fairground, sidewalk, park and even such private sites as a shopping mall or an airport. Also, no compelling government interest exists to challenge the forum.

As to manner, library officials could probably argue successfully that newspapers have alternative outlets on campus to protect freedom of expression. The clarification should be interesting.

This ban may be simply a matter of library officials bowing to The Great God of Technology and wanting all paper out of the library. They may even consider it their mission to computerize all expression. In fact, paper is under attack in big libraries nationwide as databases take over.

One look at the decimated periodicals section of the Chico State Library tells the story, and the degradation continues apace. The library no longer even subscribes to the New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record, instead carrying database abstracts, not full text, of Times articles for only 90 days. That’s not OK for a university research library. Although librarians I have talked to at Chico State don’t like it, they don’t speak up because to do so would not be politically correct. Indeed, speech all across campus is chilled for that reason.