Daily Dispatches
The front desk at Seattle's main public library.
Associated Press/Photo by Ted S. Warren
The front desk at Seattle's main public library.

Are libraries giving kids their first exposure to porn?

Family

Imagine walking into the local public library with two young children. As you head toward the children’s section, you pass the computer terminals and glance at the back of a man who is looking at one of the screens. What you see over his shoulder shocks you: online pornography. 

Sound unlikely? That’s exactly what happened to Seattle resident Julie Vanderburg a few weeks ago, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. When she reported him to the librarians, they told her she could “fill out a form.” Frustrated, she confronted the man and asked him to stop viewing the objectionable material. A librarian told her to stop approaching patrons, insisting it isn’t the library’s responsibility to monitor internet viewing. 

“I’m not anti-porn. I’m not a church lady,” Vanderburg told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She no longer wants to use her neighborhood branch of the Seattle public library system: “He should have a private room. The environment becomes very uncomfortable.” 

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The 2000 Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) requires libraries receiving funds for services and technology to install filtering software to prevent access to pornography. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law's constitutionality in 2003. Filters protect minors from accessing online pornography, but can be disabled for adults. 

State laws vary in implementation of CIPA: Some require software that prevents minors from accessing the sites, some simply require the library system create a policy for online content, and others prohibit the use of library computers for that purpose entirely. Auburn, Calif., libraries have chosen to not use filters because they make computers less efficient for research. Adults caught accessing inappropriate material are given two warnings and then prohibited from using library computers. There are currently 136 adults under that ban. 

Many libraries use privacy screens to limit accidental viewing. But library patrons complain the screens don’t block sounds coming from the sites, which can also be objectionable. Other libraries have moved adults’ computers to a separate room or an area removed from the children’s section. However, no precautions are fool-proof. 

Librarians defend their decisions to allow pornography as a freedom of speech issue. But historically, libraries have had the freedom to decide which constitutionally protected speech they will include in their collections. Libraries set up policies and guidelines to help them choose materials that are appropriate for their community and weed out selections that are not.

Seattle Public Libraries have 41 “Rules of Conduct,” which include violations for infractions like creating loud noises, being barefoot or shirtless, and verbally intimidating staff, volunteers, or patrons. It also prohibits offensive touching, obscene acts, and indecent exposure. But looking at such behavior is evidently fine.

Cheryl Keen
Cheryl Keen

Cheryl, who lives in Maryland, is married with two children and seven grandchildren. She has been executive director of a pregnancy resource center for 17 years.

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