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Library community rooms should be open to all of us

It took a month and the threat of losing a lawsuit, but the city of Dunedin finally backtracked and changed a policy that barred programs of a political or religious nature from its library.

The policy wasn't just wrongheaded, it was clearly unconstitutional. That the policy existed and initially was defended by city officials is troubling.

There is a great need for meeting spaces in most communities, so many public libraries have meeting rooms of various sizes that are used for special programs. Dunedin's relatively new library was built with a nice community room that could be reserved by outside groups for meetings and programs on a first come-first served basis.

But the city wanted to control the kinds of people and programs using the community room. A city policy that governed access to meeting rooms in city-owned facilities declared that groups would be allowed in if they were "of an educational or cultural nature." But programs about politics or religion were "expressly forbidden."

That's where the policy ran afoul of the law. When the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit religious civil liberties organization in Orlando, wanted to reserve the room for a discussion of Christianity in America, the library staff denied the request based on the city policy.

That gave the Liberty Counsel all the ammunition it needed to sue the city. Not only does the U.S. Constitution protect the right to free speech, courts have ruled that government cannot pick and choose what kind of expression is acceptable in public areas that are generally available for free expression. A religious group or a political forum has as much right to use a library community room as a garden club or a book club.

Dunedin City Attorney John Hubbard was angry that the city was sued without being notified first, and he initially defended the policy. "The city still believes in separation of church and state, and that's how we run our city facilities."

Sorry. It ran them illegally. And besides, a library is just the right place to showcase diverse viewpoints and the wonderfully complicated tapestry of community life.

Whatever it was Dunedin was afraid of when it developed that policy, Tarpon Springs apparently is even more frightened. When a similar dispute arose there, the city just declared that starting this fall, its library community room will be closed to all outside groups and will be used only for library functions.

At least Dunedin officials got the message, opened their minds and threw open the library doors. Tarpon Springs officials slammed them shut.

Virtually every candidate who ran for a City Commission seat in the recent Tarpon Springs election disapproved of that decision. Yet the decision still stands.

In Tarpon Springs' case, a local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State had been meeting at the library. But when the group invited in political candidates to discuss church-state issues, library officials declared the group had violated a meeting room policy requiring "political neutrality." The group was banned.

When Americans United threatened to sue, the Tarpon Springs city attorney, who also is John Hubbard, and library officials conferred and agreed to let them return, but only temporarily. Starting in September 2003, they said, not only Americans United but all outside groups would be banned from the meeting room.

Tarpon Springs' $2.9-million public library was built with a 90-seat community room that has a kitchen and video projection equipment because city and library officials said there was a need for such a facility in the city. The community room and the new library were a source of great pride when they opened in 1997. And the community room proved popular immediately, providing meeting space for dozens of groups.

But later this year they will all be kicked out, because one group dared to exercise its right to free speech.

Tarpon Springs officials ought to be ashamed of that decision, and they ought to follow Dunedin's example and reverse it immediately.