January, 2004 Columbus Monthly Vol. 30, No. 1, p. 12

Watch where you step

Barefoot enthusiast Bob Neinast, who's been battling the Columbus Metropolitan Library for six years. (Photo by Michael A. Foley/Rycus Assoc.)

Unsuspecting browsers in the Columbus Metropolitan Library system, which was ranked as the second best in the country for big-city libraries in 2002, have been known to discover human waste and other bodily fluids among the three million tomes at the library's 20 branches. That's a problem for barefoot enthusiast Robert Neinast, who has been in a running battle with the library system for six years—but not for the reasons you may think.

Library officials booted Neinast from the main branch of the library for being barefoot on several occasions between 1997 and 2001. Neinast filed a lawsuit against the library in 2001 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court claiming violation of his constitutional rights, including free speech.

The case was moved to federal court and dismissed. This past October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected Neinast's appeal, noting that the library had a legitimate government interest to protect public health and safety and avoid lawsuits.

Incident reports the library filed in defense of its policies showed that patrons may find "blood, feces, vomit, semen and broken glass," along with dusty books. The substances have been discovered on restroom floors, in an elevator, on chairs, in a lobby and in reading and children's areas.

"Close scrutiny of the record . . . reveals that hazards to barefoot patrons can be found throughout the library buildings," the appeals court wrote.

Patrick Losinksi, executive directory of the library, considers the "findings" all in a day's work when 7.8 million patrons cross the library's threshold each year. "You can imagine with that many people some abnormal things do happen," Losinksi says. "I don't characterize us as unique. An airport facility, museum or courthouse would probably experience the same thing."

While Neinast agrees the system is top-notch, he still thinks his lifestyle shouldn't prevent him from using the library. "They just got a burr up their butts and said, "By golly, we made up this rule and we are going to enforce it,'" Neinast says. "If I step in pooh, I know it immediately and I clean it off. If you step in it with shoes on, you track it all over."

Neinast has asked the appeals court to reconsider its decision.

T. C. Brown