RAQs: Recently Asked Questions

Topic: Temporary disuse of a meeting room - 8/26/2020
My library's reopening plan calls for not allowing group meetings/ programs for a time. The...
Posted: Wednesday, August 26, 2020 Permalink

MEMBER QUESTION

My library's reopening plan calls for not allowing group meetings/ programs for a time.

There is some concern for a BOT member as to if the library can legally do this. The concern is if a community group or club that regularly meets in the library were to want to meet again, could they challenge the library in regards to this issue? In a nutshell, the question is "Do we legally have the right to suspend and not allow all meeting room use as the library reopens?"

As library director my thought process is that as long as the policy is being equally and fairly enforced to everyone then there should not be an issue. This does beg the question however as to what may happen if the city, which owns the building calls "eminent domain" and quickly demands use of a meeting space they own in an emergency circumstance. This is rare but has happened a few times in the past.

Any input you have would be greatly appreciated.

WNYLRC ATTORNEY'S RESPONSE

I have been looking at some of my post-COVID "Ask the Lawyer" responses, and they are pretty grim.  Such serious writing.

Of course, these are serious days, and operating during COVID-19 is a serious topic.

But I have been on the lookout for a chance for some joy, if not some outright levity.  And finally, this question supplies one!

Why would a question about temporary disuse of a meeting room make me happy?  Well, as some of you may have noticed, very little gratifies me more than emphasizing a library's autonomy.[1]

So, hear me rejoice: Yes, your library has the right to disallow all meeting room use in the interest of safety!

And if that isn't joyful enough, get ready for more good news: this is true whether your library is a tenant or a landowner, a public library or an association library, a library in a big city or a library in a small rural village!

Why is that?  If a chartered library in New York has assessed its unique space, its unique operational capacity, and its unique ability to operate safely, and as a result has adopted a Safety Plan that does not allow meeting spaces or on-site programming, then...there will be no meeting use or on-site programming.  It's as simple as that.

Now, that said, can someone try and complain about it?  Sure.[2] Can a building owner (like a town or a landlord) try and over-ride it? Yes.[3]  Could a pre-COVID contract be implicated?[4]  Yes.  But as an autonomous entity governed by an independent board, can your library make a Safety Plan and stick to it?  Yes.

As it should be.

Of course, within that autonomy is the obligation to steward and utilize library assets responsibly, and in compliance with the law.[5]  This is why the member's point about uniform enforcement and clarity is so important.  If the access is restricted for the Book Club, it needs to be restricted for the Comic Book Club, and even for the Garden Club.[6]  But after ensuring basic fairness and compliant use of library resources, the baseline decision about what facilities to allow access to during the pandemic is in the hands of the library's board and director.  And as I have said in many of my recent answers: they must put safety first.

Only one thing remains to be said: despite my obvious relish for the task, I want to assure the reading public that I still did my homework for this reply.  As of this date,[7] the only court rulings in New York to address litigation or complaints about library access as impacted by COVID-19 are numerous claims about transmission concerns impeding access to a prison law library[8] (now, in that case, I can understand why someone would complain).  But I found nothing regarding action against public and association libraries due to COVID-induced closure, reduced operations, and impediments to general access.  Hopefully it stays that way.[9]

Thanks for a good question and for some time on the bright side.

 

 



[1] It gives me a very "we the people" thrill that no amount of election-year jitters can override.

[2] I am sure that by now (August 25, 2020), MANY of you have heard MANY complaints...complaints about masks violating the ADA, complaints about the Library being too open or too closed, complaints that your signage is in the wrong font, or perhaps complaints about the smell of your hand sanitizer being too fruity.  These days, people just need to complain about something—it helps us feel more in-control.  I know I directed a very strongly worded message to my local government regarding document retention policies after the repeal of Civil Rights Law 50-a; for about 10 minutes, I felt really in charge of my own destiny.

[3] This is why a lease, or at least an agreement with a municipality who may own the library building, is a good idea.  At the bare minimum, such a document should address security/confidentiality, insurance for loss, the protocol for an on-site slip-and-fall, and the process for planning capital improvements.

[4] For instance, a facility rental agreement.

[5] For instance, once your meeting room is again accessible to the public, you can't let a start-up business owner hold a pop-up retail stand there to turn a profit, since that would risk compliance with several laws and tax regulations.

[6] Comics are very cool, but obviously your library doesn't want to play favorites.  And just because the Garden Club shows up with trowels is no reason to give them special treatment.

[7] August 25, 2020.

[8] There are already over a dozen of these.  A typical case can be seen in Vogel v Ginty, 2020 US Dist LEXIS 148513 [SDNY Aug. 14, 2020, No. 20-CV-6349 (LLS)].

[9] It will be hard enough sorting out the impact on budgets and various regulatory requirements.

 

Tags: COVID-19, Emergency Response, Library Programming and Events, Meeting Room Policy, Policy, Reopening policies

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The WNYLRC's "Ask the Lawyer" service is available to members of the Western New York Library Resources Council. It is not legal representation of individual members.