Shouldn't Be a Public Library Service
by Elizabeth Hovde, Oregonian columnist
Saturday, July 11, 2009
Libraries can't and don't house every book ever written or every magazine in circulation. And library employees are continually making decisions about what goes on the shelf and what gets left out of a given collection. Rarely are they criticized for what is left behind, accused of censorship or sued.
But when libraries don't supply unfiltered Internet access to the masses (or even to children), the American Civil Liberties Union and others go after the taxpayer-funded institutions, treating them as if library board members were standing in the parking lot burning every copy of "Pride and Prejudice" and "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The North Central Regional Library District in Washington state is one library district that has decided it isn't a library's job to peddle Net porn and that filtering software for library computers can help create a more family-friendly library experience. For that reasonable stance, the Wenatchee-based district has been sued. Late last month, the case finally made it all the way to the Washington state Supreme Court. And now the court will decide whether public libraries can refuse to disable library Internet filters for adults who want access to blocked content.
The ACLU of Washington is representing three library users and a pro-gun foundation in the case. The organization found the right test cases. The three library patrons the ACLU is representing were trying to access information that would upset no one. The patrons include a woman who was doing research on tobacco use by youth, a photographer who was blocked from using YouTube and a man who was unable to access his blog, as well as information related to gun use by hunters.
It's easier to gather sympathy for ACLU's cause when a library policy hinders the Internet searches of people seeking benign information. It's much harder to do so for middle-aged guys who go to the library to look at pornography in a building frequented by children.
That's what filtering policies are all about, of course. They are an attempt to keep: libraries safe for all patrons and library workers; children away from materials they can't legally buy in a store; and taxpayers from having to finance someone's porn habits.
Instead of imagining the limited Internet searches of students and hunters, picture the 25-year-old man accused of downloading illegal child pornography at the Lake Oswego Public Library last October or the Milwaukie man who was arrested for repeatedly downloading child pornography from a public computer in Milwaukie's Ledding Library last fall.
Like a lot of libraries, the Lake Oswego Public Library offers patrons the option of filtered or unfiltered Net access and doesn't monitor the use of legal materials and information. But child pornography is not legal and violates both libraries' policies.
It should make all of us uncomfortable that pedophiles have access to pornography in public places where children are present. And there are many examples across the nation of library patrons who've left pornographic images where minors or librarians can come across them. When the fight over Internet filtering on library computers was going on in Seattle in the 1990s, the crusade for filtered Net access was led, in part, by a well-spoken librarian who didn't feel comfortable helping men access pornography or being exposed to the peep shows.
Concern for librarians and children led the federal government to tie some federal dollars for library Internet access to a requirement that libraries have the ability to block minors from pornography and other potentially harmful sites. The ACLU opposed even this modest move, calling it a threat to free speech and saying parents, not libraries, should control what kids view.
But some library districts listened to common sense and constituents instead of the ACLU. And like North Central Regional Library District, they chose to filter out smut not only for minors, but for adults, too. Sometimes, an unintended consequence resulted: Other content was blocked along with offensive materials -- leading to the current case before the Washington state Supreme Court.
I hope the library district wins, despite the valid searches for YouTube, gun use and teen smoking habits. Libraries are financed by taxpayers and offer a lot of information to the public. But they don't offer every piece of information available and shouldn't have to.
Limiting what's on the shelves -- or accessible on a public computer -- is not censorship. It's discretion. And pornography and other materials blocked by some filtering programs are still widely available for personal use and purchase elsewhere.
Elizabeth Hovde writes a Sunday column for The Oregonian and also posts during the week on oregonlive.com/thestump. Reach her at email@example.com.