SF library officials propose new rules to crack down on unruly behavior

In response to Mayor Ed Lee’s call for zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior at the San Francisco Main Library, new rules are being added to the patron conduct code as well as stiffer suspensions for violating existing regulations that in some cases would ban offenders for up to three years.

The proposed rules presented Thursday to the Library Commission were received favorably by the mayor-appointed board, but homeless advocates are critical of the increased penalties and rules they worry would unfairly target the poor and homeless.

City Librarian Luis Herrera said the rules are in line with those at other U.S. libraries and would be implemented in the spirit of giving patrons a chance to correct their behavior first. The new rules have been created in response to complaints of various unruly behavior by some patrons at the library. Additionally, Herrera said those suspended from the facility can appeal, and if ruled against, would be entitled to an arbitration process.

“We want to correct the behavior,” Herrera said. “We want to welcome folks to return.”

The draft code of conduct proposes a total of 33 rules. For some of the most severe repeat offenses, patrons could be banned for up to three years. Indecent exposure and other sex acts, under the existing rules, could result in a 30-day suspension for a first offense and up to 12 months for repeat offenses. That would change to one year and three years, respectively.

As it stands today, violations such as “making offensive gestures, cursing, or using obscene, abusive, profane or threatening language” could lead to suspensions for seven days on the first offense; under the new rules, the suspension would be for three months. A first-offense, 30-day suspension for possession or intent to sell drugs would increase to three months. Another proposed three-month suspension would be for “unreasonable use of restrooms,” such as smoking, instead of the existing three days.

One new rule would carry the penalty of a warning of up to a seven-day ban for “harassment or unwanted attention that is persistent or inappropriate.” The same penalty would apply to another new rule that prohibits the use of “facilities for other than their intended purpose,” including loitering, sleeping, bathing (except washing hands), personal grooming, changing clothes, washing clothes or utensils, or preparing meals unless for an approved activity.

An attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, Alan Schlosser, wrote in an April 4 letter to the commission that the group “is concerned that these revisions will operate to disproportionately restrict the First Amendment rights of poor and homeless individuals.” Among the objections was to “loosely worded” rules.

Members of the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness said the library should shift its focus to staff training and social services, not increased penalties.

Over the years, library officials have taken several steps to address complaints about unruly behavior, drug use or sex in the bathrooms, and other frowned-upon behavior like sleeping. But in January, the mayor said he’d had enough and wanted an overhaul of the patron rules. His decision came after he toured the facility with department heads following a string of high-profile incidents that gained media attention, including someone being hit by a chair and someone urinating on a book shelf.

The commission’s final approval of the new patron code of conduct is expected as early as June.

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