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Ordinance Bans Body Odor in Libraries

March 05, 2005|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Librarians in San Luis Obispo County have long had a policy of politely asking guests with offensive body odor to leave.

Now a new ordinance makes that policy a law.

"The point is to make [the library] a comfortable, safe place for everyone to use," said Moe McGee, assistant director of the San Luis Obispo City-County Library.

The prohibition against offensive body odor is part of a list of banned activities that was implemented by librarians in 1994. The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted last month to make the "Library Rules of Conduct and Exclusion Process" part of the county code.

The new code gives law enforcement officers the legal authority to remove patrons who violate the rules and infringe upon the rights of others, something officers did not have before, McGee said.

A patron may be asked to leave for having an offensive odor or banned for other infractions such as fighting, eating, drinking, sleeping, playing games, printing or viewing illegal materials on library computers, or for not wearing a shirt or shoes.

The rules of conduct apply to 14 libraries and a bookmobile, McGee said.

Librarians say the prohibition against body odor is not a frivolous matter.

As public institutions, libraries are meeting grounds for diverse segments of society. Each person has a right to use the library, but to ensure that one patron's use does not infringe upon that of others, clear rules of conduct are needed, McGee said.

Irene Macias, Santa Barbara's library services manager, understands the tightrope that librarians walk.

In the case of body odor, though, the prohibition raises tough questions.

"What is bad odor?" Macias asked. "A woman who wears a strong perfume? A person who had a garlicky meal?"

In Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, patrons who smell are not simply shown the door, McGee and Macias said. They are provided with a means of correcting the problem.

"We seldom have to ask someone to leave," McGee said. "It rarely happens. If it does we're very careful to give coupons about where they can wash their clothes or take a shower. We do it in as humane a way as possible."

In a 1989 federal court case, a homeless man in Morristown, N.J., Richard Kreimer, was asked to leave a library because he often exhibited offensive and disruptive behavior, including staring at patrons, and because of his body odor.

Kreimer sued the town for harassment and won. The court ruled it was unconstitutional for the Morristown library to evict Kreimer.

"It was kind of a warning to libraries about excluding people," Macias said.

But in 1992, a federal appeals court overturned the lower court ruling. The court found that a library may enforce such rules if they are reasonable, fairly applied and impinge as little as possible on the right of access to information.

Over the years there have been no lawsuits filed because of San Luis Obispo's prohibition, McGee said.

"People have always taken the first suggestion to clean up and we've never had anyone object to that," she said.

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