Politics & Government

March 24, 2014

SC libraries want legal muscle to remove unruly visitors

Some S.C. library directors want the legal muscle to ban visitors who are disruptive or engage in behavior that makes others feel unsafe. They are backing a state Senate bill that would make it a misdemeanor for someone to refuse to leave a library when asked to go by a library staff member or security, or to return to the library after being banned.

A York County Library employee complained to her supervisor that she felt unsafe when a library visitor tried to touch her, even after she had warned him not to repeatedly.

“(The employee) turned around in time to prevent it,” said Colleen Kaphengst, executive director of the York County Library. “She said she had been sexually harassed and this is a hostile work environment.”

The York County employee isn’t alone in expressing concern about safety while at the library.

Last week, a fist fight broke out in the parking lot of the Harvin Clarendon County Library in Manning. Police arrested two men for disorderly conduct.

York and Clarendon officials, responsible for keeping those libraries safe, said there is nothing now they can do to stop the patrons in both cases from returning to their libraries – public spaces open to anyone.

But library directors in those counties and Richland are asking S.C. legislators for the legal muscle to ban visitors who are disruptive or engage in behavior that makes others feel unsafe or uncomfortable.

The officials are backing a state Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, and backed by nine other senators, that would make it a misdemeanor for someone to refuse to leave a library when asked by a library staff member or security, or to return to the library after being banned. The bill is on the agenda Tuesday of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Library officials say the proposal would give them a tool to remove patrons who repeatedly disrupt others or make them feel unsafe – whether their behavior is illegal or not.

“If someone were threatening someone, if they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol, if they stole something – all of those things – that would be legal charges. We would immediately call the police,” York County’s Kaphengst said. “Adults that repeatedly strike up conversation with others’ children – while that’s not illegal, it’s certainly suspicious.”

The library directors cited other examples: visitors who follow library staff members or engage in sometimes heated, undesired conversations with others. One library employee caught a visitor taking pictures of her.

The proposed legislation has the backing of Melanie Huggins, executive director of the Richland Library, who testified about the bill before a Senate subcommittee.

Because libraries are “one of the truly democratic community institutions, we often find ourselves in the position of defending everyone’s rights to use the resources we provide,” Huggins said.

When visitors engage in disruptive behavior repeatedly and deliberately, some libraries have policies in place to ask them to leave and, eventually, to ban them from returning. But that process can take a long time, and there is no guarantee that visitors will follow the policy.

Unlike York County, the Clarendon County Library has no policy to ban disruptive patrons from returning, said Charlotte Johnston, that library’s director.

Library officials can ask patrons to leave for the day, as they did with the two men fighting, but they are allowed to return the next day, she said.

Wary of broad scope

Richland’s Huggins said the power to ask patrons to leave would be used “judiciously and fairly” if the bill becomes law.

But two social justice advocates said they worry the proposal’s scope is too broad and might result in library officials kicking out visitors who are not causing trouble.

“(The bill’s language) seems awfully vague,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center, which advocates for low-income South Carolinians. “For some folks, a library is the only place they have to go for socialization, to apply for a job, to apply for a benefit. I worry that we’re criminalizing what might be homelessness and mental health issues.

“Somebody might feel uncomfortable by someone who is not doing anything.”

Victoria Middleton, executive director of the of the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, said the bill should require officials to exhaust remedies already set forth in library policies before banning a visitor.

“We have concerns about an evident lack of administrative due process in (the bill),” Middleton said. “We wouldn’t want it to be so broad that it would lead to an arbitrary expulsion of someone from a public library.”

But Kaphengst and Johnston said homeless patrons and people who have mental health issues are not the target of the bill.

“Our homeless actually help us police the library,” Kaphengst said.

Regular visitors, including the homeless, know the rules and, typically, inform library staff when they see behavior that is not allowed.

Library officials would like to be able to issue no-trespassing orders against patrons, said Kent Lesesne, a S.C. Association of Counties attorney who assisted the libraries with research for the bill. But library staff cannot limit who comes in because libraries, like parks, are public property.

No-trespassing orders only apply to private property and some public places where access is restricted, including schools.

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