Features

Faltering over filtering

National | Public libraries' resistance to Internet filtering to screen out pornography draws a seedy new clientele-and drives away good librarians. Now, they're fighting back

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

Warning: Contains graphic material Heidi Borton loved being a librarian. She enjoyed helping patrons at the Seattle-area Woodinville Public Library pursue knowledge, and found it satisfying to create a safe, enriching haven for visiting children. But when the Internet exploded onto the information science scene, a new kind of library offering-pornography-radically changed her job. As King County's flagship technical library, Woodinville adopted Web access in 1996. Immediately, Ms. Borton said, the library's clientele changed as a steady stream of new patrons-mostly male adults but also teens and young children-began regularly using the library's computers to access hard-core sex sites. Woodinville staffers soon were forced to take on new duties: closing out computer screens left open to scenes of orgies and child sex, calming porn-addicted patrons who raged when all the unfiltered computer terminals were in use, and fielding questions from children about how to view pornography in the library. Ms. Borton watched her once-peaceful library transformed into a tax-funded peep show-and into a hostile and degrading work environment. Woodinville wasn't the only library so changed. Library workers in all 50 states have complained without effect to the American Library Association (ALA) about hostile work conditions fostered by the group's endorsement of unfiltered Web access in public libraries. But a May finding by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) may represent a ray of hope for Ms. Borton and others hoping to recapture the nation's libraries from patrons surfing for porn. Last month, the EEOC announced a finding of "probable cause" that 12 Minneapolis librarians were subjected to a sexually hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when they were exposed to pornography on the Internet. The librarians, employees of the Minneapolis Central Library, filed their complaint with the EEOC in April, citing hard-core pornographic websites left visible on vacated terminals, explicit printouts left on tables, and children captivated by Internet porn. In view of the EEOC's finding, the complainants now will barter a new workplace policy with Minneapolis library officials. But if negotiations fall flat, the U.S. Justice Department may file suit against the city's library system, according to the librarians' attorney Bob Halagan. The ALA, a 58,000-member trade organization that exerts tremendous influence over library policies, opposed the Minneapolis librarians-and others with similar complaints. According to Ms. Borton, who resigned from the Woodinville library and now speaks publicly against library-based Web porn, librarians who grumble about ALA policy are labeled "censors"-an epithet akin to "Nazi" among librarians-and blackballed by administrators who toe the ALA line. The ALA's official policy on access to electronic materials is that libraries "must support access to information on all subjects that serve the needs or interests of each user, regardless of the user's age or the content of the material." Thus, while nearly three-quarters of public libraries offer Internet access, only about 15 percent use some type of blocking technology on at least some public workstations. To keep it that way, the ALA has joined with the American Civil Liberties Union and other "free-speech" activists in opposing any legislative attempts to block or filter Internet porn. How big is the impact on libraries and library workers of free access to Internet porn? A study last year by Oregon librarian David Burt of less than one-third of American public libraries revealed 2,062 documented incidents of porn-viewing and related problems. Using Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain written reports from libraries, Mr. Burt cataloged hundreds of complaints from librarians. One in Ft. Vancouver, Wash., reported a pattern of Internet use by two brothers, followed by library workers' repeated discovery of semen on the library's restroom floor. Many library staffers reported enduring the sight of men and children fondling themselves. Other reports included 106 incidents of adults deliberately exposing children to pornography, five incidents of attempted child molestation, and 25 occasions on which patrons harassed library staff with sexually explicit material. In almost all cases, librarians reported that they were powerless to stop such behavior because of local library policies that conformed to those of the ALA. The EEOC decision may help change that. The Family Research Council hailed the finding as a crucial counterpoint to previous judicial rulings, which have held that filtering graphic sex sites violates pornographers' First Amendment rights. In finding "probable cause" for the Minneapolis librarians, the EEOC acknowledged that people who don't want to be exposed to pornography have rights, too-despite the free-speech activism of the ALA. Notes Jan LaRue, the Family Research Council's senior director of legal studies, "The ALA has resisted doing what's constitutional and common sense: Don't bring into the library through cyberspace what would never be stocked on the bookshelves." Meanwhile the battle for common sense continues. In December, Congress passed the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which denies federal funding to public libraries and schools that fail to install filtering software on computer terminals purchased with federal money. In March, the ALA filed suit to block enforcement of the new law, explaining, "Librarians care deeply about children."

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