Sunday, May 26, 2024

Patrons at the Cambridge Main Library on Monday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

At the Cambridge Public Library, privacy is valued and filming of staff and patrons is prohibited. But for nearly six months leading up to a Thursday meeting, librarians were unsure if their no-filming policy could change following a notice from the city manager.

After a September incident at Cambridge City Hall in which right-wing so-called First Amendment auditors recorded city employees, library staff received notice from their administration that they shouldn’t stop patrons from filming. A lack of guidance in the months since in effect allowed filming, staff feared, opening the door to political activists seeking to make library branches a front in a conservative culture war.

“Staff have been instructed to allow patrons to film them as long as they are not violating library policy in any other way. This change does not occur in a political vacuum,” the CPLSA wrote in a complaint to City Manager Yi-An Huang on Feb. 15. “Libraries nationwide are being targeted by anti-LGBTQIA hate groups and white nationalists for carrying materials that discuss race, sexuality and gender.”

The city did not respond to the email, said Clara Hendricks, co-chair of the CPLSA, leaving staff frustrated with a lack of communication and urgency. On Thursday, a meeting held with the Cambridge Public Library Staff Association, library administration and a city representative confirmed that a prohibition on filming at the library stands, the library’s staff association said. The city did not reply to requests for comment.

“It could just be that they didn’t see the need to take this as urgently as we did and that they really have been ’looking into it’ since September and were finally able to come to the determination that our policy was valid and didn’t need to be changed,” Hendricks said after the meeting confirming their policy.

Another shoe dropping

An incident of blatant filming of staff and patrons at the main branch in December seemed like another shoe dropping after the September incident at City Hall, librarians said. Last month, librarians were alarmed by a third incident in which a woman was reportedly filming teens in a restroom.

When police arrived, the woman said she’d been “looking in the mirror with her digital camera doing something” when she was confronted by a girl, one of a group. The discussion escalated, according to a police report, and the girl slapped her. The group left afterward.

The woman never sent video of the incident to police so they could follow up, and Cambridge police said that they have been unable to get in contact with the woman since. Hendricks, though, said the woman has returned to the library multiple times since – and has been filming, though not with any apparent political agenda.

“It’s about protecting ourselves and it’s about protecting the people of Cambridge who should be able to come into the library and be their own full selves and access the materials that they need,” Hendricks said.

A statewide concern

The “First Amendment auditors,” according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Massachusetts Municipal Association, “record their interactions with public officials and post videos to social media …  to provoke employees into unlawfully detaining, refusing entry or otherwise violating the constituent’s First Amendment rights.”

It’s enough of an issue statewide that the association held a Jan. 10 presentation for nearly 900 municipal officials so they could “prepare for and handle” the encounters.

The nature of a library adds concern. “That is just such so much at the essence of our services – that when you become a library user, you have that full privacy,” Hendricks said. Before the Thursday announcement, she worried that the city would be “acting out of fear and succumbing to political pressure instead of protecting the rights of users.”

Boston Public Library affected

The Boston Public Library is still in uncertainty. It also has a policy that filming is prohibited, but a draft has been proposed to allow it, said Maty Cropley, a member of the executive board of the Boston Public Library Professional Staff Association.

“We have a responsibility to maintain a safe environment in our public library spaces, and part of that is protecting the privacy and confidentiality of library users,” Cropley said.

Both library staff representatives saw political pressure from First Amendment auditors affecting  city governments.

“We’ve had incidents where people – so-called First Amendment auditors and and other people protesting other city policies – [are] coming in and filming library staff, and it’s traumatizing and people feel targeted when that happens,” Cropley said. “We have marginalized and vulnerable folks in these spaces, and there’s the whole issue of consent as well.”

Hendricks said despite Cambridge and Boston’s “liberal bubble,” GOP candidate for Massachusetts secretary of state Rayla Campbell filmed advertisements in libraries during the last election cycle to advocate for book censorship, particularly of LGBTIA+ materials.

“The First Amendment auditors have a lot of links to this type of harassment and this type of wanting to censor what is available in libraries,” Hendricks said. “We’ve seen amongst our staff increased harassment, particularly against our staff of color and against our LGBTQIA staff from the public.”