Week doesn't begin till next Monday, but...


March 30, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

NATIONAL LIBRARY Week doesn't begin till next Monday, but somelibrarians began celebrating last Monday, when a three-judge panel of the U.S Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled unanimously that public libraries are for intellectual, professional or entertainment purposes only.

"Wait a minute, Theo," you are thinking, "why does it take a court ruling to prove that? What else could a library be used for?"

It could be used as a homeless shelter.

Last May a federal district judge in New Jersey ruled that the Town of Morristown could not enforce a rule limiting its library to patrons "reading, studying or using library materials." Nor could it enforce a rule that said patrons must not "harass or annoy" others by intimidating stares, loud noises, etc. Nor could it enforce a rule requiring that patron hygiene not be "so offensive as to constitute a nuisance."

The Morristown library adopted these rules because a homeless man who was a constant "patron" intimidated other traditional patrons with his stares, comments and other acts and offended them with his filthly clothes and smelly person.

Naturally he sued. And a federal trial judge, Lee Sarokin, upheld him. He ruled among other things that the smell test was not based on "identifiable standards" and that "one person's nauseating body order is another person's ambrosia."

Fortunately, the appellate panel of Judges Robert Cowen, Morton Greenberg and Collins Seitz took a more realistic view -- to the effect that it would be impossible to list every smell and its intensity that constituted a nuisance.

And so that's that? The library in Morristown and those everywhere else that have a problem with the poor souls who go to them because they're dry and warm rather than because they are repositories of knowledge and divertissement can now enforce standards such as those that Judge Sarokin's ruling had threatened? Right? Wrong.

One of the lawyers for the homeless litigant, saying he and his team of lawyers would appeal, complained, echoing Judge Sarokin, "Who defines what's offensive? It's sort of in the nose of the beholder." Exactly, and it's not hard to figure out, even without standards. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart's remarks about obscenity, I may not be able to define an overly offensive odor, but I know it when I smell it. So can any judge. (Well, almost any. Which reminds me, if you get invited to Judge Sarokin's for dinner, stay away from the orange and coconut dessert.) So can any librarian tell.

The most absurd comment on this case came from the homeless man involved. He said after the circuit court ruling, "Probably the most dangerous thing that this decision allows is the total discretion and dictatorship of librarians."

Dictatorial librarian is a contradiction in terms. The ones I know all bend over backward to be nice to people. I haven't even heard a harsh "shhh!" at the Pratt in years.

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