Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Battle for Public Libraries: Censorship and Law in Missouri; Guest Post by Lisa Grant

The Battle for Public Libraries: 
Censorship and Law in Missouri
by Lisa Grant

Anyone familiar with the American Library Association [ALA] will know that it is at the forefront of a raging debate about privacy issues and censorship regarding public library access.  On one side, the ALA believes that any public citizen using the library computers or literature is afforded a basic right of privacy when it comes to the kind of content they are looking at.  This sounds acceptable enough, but what if this content is illegal in nature or pornographic?  This is of concern to many parents and community leaders who believe that their community should decide what kind of content is available in their public libraries, so as to protect children from inappropriate material and prevent access to websites or reading material that could be considered dangerous or illegal.

The Nature of the Problem

In essence, this debate comes down where we draw the line on individual privacy and freedoms.  Should for example, the Koran not be available in public libraries because it can be linked to fundamental Islam, which in turn can be linked to terrorism?  Should pornographic material that is legal be blocked by library regulations, to prevent children and others from viewing them in such a public and easy to access place?

These are difficult questions to answer.  On one hand, we might say that it is an infringement on personal liberty and censorship to remove these examples.  On the flip side, if these materials are used to further some illegal or terrorist activity, then surely such things can be prevented by introducing a small amount of careful censorship.  The ALA has made its position clear on the matter, invoking much controversy and outrage among communities when it claimed that a suspected terrorist who was reported by a local librarian for accessing what was thought to be dangerous and potentially illegal material had his rights infringed by the librarian in question, by being reported to the police.  It is known that a number of 9/11 terrorists did use public libraries prior to the attack.

Recent Missouri Case

A few months ago a case was brought to the Missouri courts involving access to certain websites on the Internet.  A local resident of Salem was unable to fully access websites that contained information on Native Americans and the Wicca belief system, as the library had used federal Internet filters to block access to these sites on the grounds they were 'occult' and 'criminal.'  The court ruled in favor of the resident, as the library was found to be misusing the filter system and didn’t have the right to block such material.  This does raise some interesting questions, because while most conscious citizens and by extension, librarians, will want to make sure they are doing what they can to stop potential problems by reporting and limiting access to some Internet material, where do we draw the line?  Supposing a library decides to block reading materials and Internet access to drugs for example.  While this may have the desired affect of limiting the exposure of children and adults to drugs in general, it could also have a detrimental effect.  If the Missouri library had taken these steps, for example, any addicts in the area may have been unable to find materials when looking for treatment, help, or ways to battle their addiction in the local area.  These are difficult decisions to be sure, and ones that need to be carefully thought through before any action is taken.

Should Communities Have More Power?

Despite the Missouri case, there are still strong arguments that support local communities having more say in how their libraries are run.  Firstly, a community normally knows its demographics and needs much better than any large federal body, which cannot possibly have a working knowledge of all the local cultures in the country.  In this respect, it would make sense to let local communities decide what kind of content is available in their local libraries as they know local needs best.  Also, it falls on local communities and residents to take action to prevent illegal activities and behavior in their own locale—residents often know each other and can spot someone suspicious, and in cases of suspected illegal or terrorist activity, are they really expected to sit and do nothing?  Either way, and whatever your view on the matter, this is a hot topic that looks set to continue while the ALA and local communities battle for control of their local libraries.

Copyright Lisa Grant 2013.  All rights reserved.  Hyperlinks inserted by the author.  Graphics added by SafeLibraries.  If anyone wishes to contact her, such as for publication approval, send me an email and I'll pass it along, or comment below.

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