To the Editor:
On Wednesday, the News published a letter protesting a program scheduled for Saturday, March 12, at the Watertown Free Public Library. The author, Julie Cotton, had already sent a version of the letter to the Library Director and Trustees and requested they cancel the program. The sponsoring organization, Talk About Curing Autism (TACA), was founded by parents who believe that certain unproven medical interventions can benefit, even cure, their autistic children. These therapies are controversial and widely believed to be ineffective, potentially dangerous, and supported by flawed research. In 2014, the FDA issued a consumer update on the subject under the headline “Beware of False or Misleading Claims for Treating Autism.”
I sympathize with the Ms. Cotton. I understand her rage against a group that she perceives as preying on vulnerable parents with risky “snake-oil cures.” At the same time, a visit to TACA’s website convinced me of the sincerity, if not the validity, of their mission. It was a hard call, but I could see no reason to consider cancellation given the library’s meeting room policy: “meeting rooms are made available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of the groups making the request.” Other Trustees felt the same way. A proviso in the policy, however, allows for exceptions at the discretion of the Director or the Trustees “as they deem in the best interest of the library and the community.” That little “or” opened the possibility of a unilateral decision by the Director, Leone Cole—one which, because of profound implications for First Amendment rights, she wisely vetted with the Town Attorney.
In the end, the Attorney determined that the library cannot deny the use of a meeting room based on the expected content of the meeting. I have learned from subsequent reading that there is longstanding precedent for this finding. Courts have ruled that the library is a “limited public forum” in which the First Amendment prevents discrimination with respect to what is communicated. This principle has been most famously invoked in collection development decisions: a public library may not exclude books of the basis of subject (e.g., abortion rights) although it may apply other selection criteria: critical reception, popularity, cost, etc. Libraries whose meeting room policies contain exclusionary language have been challenged in the courts and have lost. This past October, the Lawrence Public Library was sued by a right-wing advocacy group and required to remove a statement that prohibited “proselytizing” by religious groups.
So the TACA meeting will proceed as planned. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I’m pretty sure that no member of the Trustees or library staff is insensitive to the issues raised by Ms. Cotton’s letter or to the need for “good” information to counter the “bad.” In that spirit, Ms. Cole has arranged for the library to observe Autism Awareness Month in April with a display of library materials and a program featuring speakers on the subject. Ms. Cotton and other concerned citizens have been invited to participate in the planning. I hope that anyone reading this who cares about autism will also get involved.
Please note, that I am writing this as a private citizen. The views expressed are mine alone and do not represent those of the administration or Trustees of the WFPL.