December 1, 2015

ALA and Freedom to Read Foundation File Briefs in Two Lawsuits

Freedom to Read FoundationThe first weeks of March were busy for litigation in the library world as the American Library Association (ALA) and its affiliate the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) weighed in on a pair of cases headed to the Supreme Court. While neither impacts libraries directly, both have the potential to be big decisions that shape precedent on freedom of speech and privacy rights.

On March 4, the FTRF was joined by the ALA, as well as a wide variety of booksellers and nonprofits including the American Association of Publishers (AAP) and Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) in filing an Amicus brief in the case of Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, which will likely come before the court this fall. The brief was filed on behalf of the plaintiff, the Susan B. Anthony List (SBAL) a pro-life political advocacy group which had run ads in Ohio papers during the lead up to the 2010 election, accusing then-Rep. Steven Driehaus (D-Cincinatti) of voting for taxpayer-funded abortions. Driehaus responded by filling a complaint with the Ohio Election Commission (OEC) against SBAL, claiming the group’s ads violated an Ohio state law which makes it illegal to make a “false statement concerning a candidate, either knowing the same to be false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false.”

In response, SBAL representatives filed for an injunction against OEC, claiming that the state law was unconstitutionally vague and restricted their free speech. Driehaus went on to lose his bid for re-election and see his complaints against the SBAL dismissed. With those complaints no longer pending, the Ohio Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the SBAL had no standing to challenge the Ohio law, since there was no longer any imminent legal action against the organization.

According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, that decision flies in the face of precedent, and could have a chilling effect on people concerned that their free speech rights could be put at risk.

“It would be much more difficult to challenge the kind of laws that restrict access to constitutionally protected speech until someone is harmed under the law,” Caldwell-Stone told Library Journal. Until now, the fear that one would face prosecution for speaking their mind has been grounds enough to challenge similar laws. The circuit court decision in this case, however, would essentially make potential challengers wait until someone is actually suing them under the law to challenge it. “That goes a step too far,” said Caldwell-Stone.

The ALA wasn’t done filing friend of the court briefs, though. On March 11, the ALA joined the Internet Archive in filing an amicus brief in the cases of David Leon Riley v. State of California and United States v. Brima Wurie. Those cases ask whether police are entitled to search the cell phone of a person they have arrested without obtaining a warrant. Both Riley and Wurie had their phones searched after being arrested, and evidence found there used against them. An appeals court in California upheld Riley’s conviction, while Wurie’s conviction was overturned in Massachusetts.

Both cases are expected to be heard by the high court this fall, and the ALA is already putting its two cents in on the side of privacy rights. “Libraries have always stood for the privacy for patrons to read without government interference. It’s a basic right that libraries work to preserve,” ALA president Barbara Stripling told Library Journal. “That is also the right to think and to explore ideas without fear that a government entity will roam through your phone and look at what you’re reading and thinking and saying.” Particularly since today’s smart phones contain so much personal information on what their owners are reading, viewing, and even shopping for, “it makes sense to classify it as a private library,” said Stripling.

With the high court set to hear these cases later on this year, rulings will likely be handed down in early 2015.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is a former editor at LJ and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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