I suppose we’re not likely to think about these issues until we see a problem in our own town. Should libraries, funded by our tax dollars and frequented by our children, filter all their public computers to prevent minors from viewing adult content? Right now, in my own town, sparks fly over questions surrounding the First Amendment rights of adults and protecting children.
It all started when Catherine Loxen took her 10-year-old granddaughter to the Owosso public library in January this year. Loxen had spent some time on one of the public computers, and unbeknownst to her, a man was sitting at an adjacent computer accessing some sort of adult content. Loxen reports, when they were exiting the library, her granddaughter tugged on her arm and said, “Grandma, I looked at that man’s screen and there were pictures of naked women on the screen.”
Public controversy ensues. Should adults be given full access to the Internet in such a way that minors might be exposed to pornographic content? Loxen certainly didn’t think so, and brought it to the attention of the Owosso City Council.
What does Michigan law say?
According to Section 6 of the Michigan Library Privacy Act (a.k.a. Michigan Public Act 212), “if a library offers use of the internet . . . the governing body of that library shall adopt and require enforcement of a policy that restricts access to minors.” Libraries can choose one of two ways to accomplish this:
- Option a: By reserving one or more computers specifically for minors (restricted from receiving obscene or sexually explicit matter) and by reserving one or more computers specifically for adults (that are not restricted).
- Option b: By utilizing a system or method designed to prevent a minor from viewing obscene or sexually explicit matter.
The Owosso library has chosen the first option (a), filtering most of the computers but allowing two terminals to be “unrestricted.” The Library policies warn, “computer screens may be seen easily by passersby of all ages,” so to limit this the library has sectioned off two computers and offer privacy screens that limit the range of peripheral viewing. The computers also are also reportedly not near bookshelves so that few people would walk behind them. Furthermore, children are not allowed in the library without adult supervision.
In agreement with this Privacy Act, the Owosso library’s policies state, “the Library will take all actions reasonably necessary and possible to prevent minors from accessing obscene material or sexually explicit material deemed harmful to minors (as those terms are defined by state law) in their use of the Internet.”
So isn’t this enough? Apparently not. Not in the case of Catherine Loxen’s granddaughter.
Why not filter all computers?
Here are the concerns raised by some about applying a default filter on all computers:
- “I feel that if we start trying to filter everything we’re going to be in violation of library policy acts.” As Public Act 212 reads, filtering all computers is a viable method for preventing minors from viewing pornography (option b). For instance, the Howell Carnegie District Library‘s internet policy states, “To comply with Michigan Public Act 212 of 2000, the library utilizes a third party product that provides filtered access.”
- “One problem is that if anyone over age 18 requests that the filters be turned off, we have to turn them off.” This law applies to federally funded libraries. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) states, “An administrator, supervisor, or other authority may disable a technology protection measure [i.e. Internet filter] . . . to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purposes.” When this law was under scrutinty in the Supreme Court case, United States vs. American Library Association, the Court upheld the law on the basis that adults can ask to have a filtered disabled. But librarians can exercise discretion as to whether the request is for legitimate purposes. For instance, the Bayliss Public Libary writes in their policy, “The library’s Internet accessible computers are filtered under state and federal law. Users aged 18 and over may request unfiltered access for research purposes.” The Escanaba Public Library also states, “In compliance with state and federal regulations, filtering software is used on all library workstations to protect against access to depictions of graphic violence and explicit sexual content. Adults (18 and older) may request unfiltered access for research purposes at any time. The library reserves the right to ask individuals to discontinue display of information and/or images that would be considered offensive by others in the community.”
- “Another problem is that filters are not 100-percent effective, and that some words that are not problematic are blocked, and others that are questionable are not.” This is true. No filters are 100-percent effective, but some filters are more effective than others. The Supreme Court has stated, “No clearly superior or better fitting alternative to Internet software filters has been presented.” Plus, overblocking is solved when an adult merely has to request the filter be disabled for his or her research purposes.
- “Once you start filtering, it leads into the free speech issue.” It does lead to a free speech question, for sure. But what is the answer to that question? Again, to quote the ruling from the Supreme Court in US vs. ALA: “[P]ublic libraries’ use of Internet filtering software does not violate their patrons’ First Amendment rights.”
What can be done?
I enjoy the privilege of walking into a public library so that I might enhance my knowledge. But as someone who has a past of habitual porn use, I know how libraries can be porn havens. I lost count of the number of times I purposefully went to a library to view pornography. I can only pray my past actions did not harm passersby.
Will stopping pornography at public libraries curb the influence of pornography in our culture. Probably not. But it will curtail its availability. In an age when more and more kids are stumbling upon Internet porn, many accidentally, do we really want our tax dollars to go towards funding unprotected computers?
This comes down to a matter of priorities. Am I willing to have a few minor inconveniences in my library use if it means my children aren’t going to be able to look over the shoulder of someone looking at porn? Yes. Do I think most people in my county feel the same? I would hope.
I echo the same words of the Supreme Court over whether federal funds should be denied to libraries that refuse adequate filtering. I apply these same words to my own tax dollars in my district:
Government here is not denying a benefit to anyone, but is instead simply insisting that public funds be spent for the purpose for which they are authorized: helping public libraries fulfill their traditional role of obtaining material of requisite and appropriate quality for educational and informational purposes. Especially because public libraries have traditionally excluded pornographic material from their other collections, Congress could reasonably impose a parallel limitation on its Internet assistance programs.
Take action in your own community
Don’t wait for a public outcry or for a problem to come up. Take action in your own community.
- Research the Internet policies of your local library.
- Research the laws in your own state about library Internet regulations.
- Research any incidents that may have happened at your local library that compromises the spirit or letter of the law.
- Find out how your local library board is elected or appointed. Start attending their meetings if you have reason for concern.