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Libraries and Pornography

August 7, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Next, public libraries face online pornography. Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: A group of parents is angry at the public library in Gilroy, California. In fact, they once even brought a policeman here, in hopes he would file criminal charges against the library for allowing children to download hard-core pornography on the Internet. The group is called KIDS, Keep Internet Decent & Safe. And Cynthia Walker is one of the founding parents.

CYNTHIA WALKER: I have twice seen youngsters accessing pornography. Once it was two juveniles, teenagers, young teenagers, like 14, who were pulling up pornography. And I told the librarian, and she came and sort of said there must be something better you can look at. So the next time I saw it, which was a few weeks later, I chased them off myself. I said, don’t you know that that’s illegal to pull that up, and they were-

SPENCER MICHELS: The district attorney refused to bring criminal charges against the Gilroy Library, claiming there was no victim. But the parents have launched a crusade and carried it to library commission meetings to get the library to block porn from its Internet-equipped computers. Matthew Drummond, an active member of KIDS, says he can’t understand the library’s refusal to ban porn.

MATTHEW DRUMMOND: Isn’t it really peculiar that they’re providing something that is obviously totally–totally absurd to provide to a child? I mean, it’s dangerous. And they just–they have nothing to do about it. They won’t even stop it or even consider putting a block on it.

SPENCER MICHELS: Gilroy, about 70 miles South of San Francisco, is a town where agriculture is fast giving way to homes for commuters to Silicon Valley.

This community has become one of several focal points in a nationwide controversy over how or whether to control access within public libraries to explicitly sexual material available on the Internet. The Santa Clara County Library System–like nearly half of all libraries in the country–has recently become wired.

SUSAN FULLER, Santa Clara Co-Librarian: For a public library not to offer access to the Internet today would be really not fulfilling our mission at all.

SPENCER MICHELS: County librarian Susan Fuller says the library shouldn’t be the Internet watchdog.

SUSAN FULLER: The user has to take personal responsibility to decide how to use the collection. And when it comes to a minor, the personal responsible for guiding that minor is the parent or guardian.

SPENCER MICHELS: Librarians at the Gilroy Library says children looking at pornography has not been a problem. They have installed polarized screens on their computers so only the user can see what’s there. But they have not–like some other libraries–purchased software that automatically filters out Internet sites that contain key words like “sex” and “pornography.” Gilroy Librarian Lani Yoshimura says those filters, as they’re called, need to be more precise in what they block.

LANI YOSHIMURA, Gilroy Librarian: It would have to be those things that are determined illegal by the courts and would block only those things because we’ve got many things that are maybe offensive to people but are constitutionally protected speech.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the pastor of this Gilroy Evangelical Church is more concerned about the harm from pornography. Eric Smith helped collect 2500 signatures, calling for the library to act.

ERIC SMITH, Gilroy Pastor: A lot of people are saying censorship, free speech violations, when really it’s about anti-obscenity laws, which already exist, but for some reason the library feels that they can live above these laws, and we simply disagree at that point, because it is a moral issue. It has to do with sexuality and morality, what’s appropriate for children and what isn’t.

SPENCER MICHELS: Adapting to the new world of Internet access was a key feature at the recent convention in San Francisco of the American Library Association. The ALA, itself, has been staunchly adverse to censorship of any kind. Judith Krug, director of the group’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, says parents must become involved in what their children access.

JUDITH KRUG, American Library Association: We know that there are children out there whose parents do not take the kind of interest in their upbringing and in their existence that we would wish, but I don’t think censorship is ever the solution to any problem, be it societal or be it the kind of information or ideas that you have access to.

SPENCER MICHELS: But for those librarians who didn’t agree with the ALA’s position, there was an alternative at the convention. Dan Sydow represents Unified Research Labs, one of several companies that were hawking software filters that attempt to block out objectionable material. By typing in key words like “sex” or even “toys” and having the computer search for them, it was plain to see how readily and easily available explicit sex is on the Net.

SPENCER MICHELS: Why would the word “toys” trigger sexually explicit material?

DAN SYDOW, Unified Research Labs: Because there are adult toys, such as- sexual objects that people can buy in an adult shop that are geared for adults, and they label them as toys. And so on the Internet, there is no control over how you describe your site.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sydow’s company has developed a variety of filters that a library can activate with a child’s pre-programmed library card.

DAN SYDOW: So if they’re a young child, they may have a very strong set of filters applied to their access to information on the Internet. If they’re an older child or youth, they may have a slightly less strict set of rules that they can gain access to. So parents actually then are put back in the driver’s seat of controlling what level of filtering their children may or may not have in their library setting.

SPENCER MICHELS: Librarian Dorothy Field, from Orlando, Florida, says her library needed some technological way to deal with adults who access pornography on the Internet.

DOROTHY FIELD, Orlando Librarian: As soon as we came up live on the Internet with full graphic interface, we began to observe a number of people coming in the library and standing at our computers for hours on end, viewing what can only be described as hard core pornography on equipment purchased by the public dollars, and at the expense of other people who want to come in and do research on the computers, is that intellectual freedom? I don’t think so.

SPENCER MICHELS: Librarian Field, who says she believes in intellectual freedom, didn’t want to block out words like “toys” and “breast” and thereby eliminate useful materials on topics like children’s toys or breast cancer. She found a software company called Net Partners, which doesn’t block by key words.

DOROTHY FIELD: They have a staff of people who literally surf the Net looking for these sites; that’s their job. And then they block them from coming into our library.

SPENCER MICHELS: Some librarians find even that level of filtering offensive and unnecessary. The ALA’s Krug fears that any filtering risks destroying the freedom the Internet and the library provide.

JUDITH KRUG: Material that might be illegal is such a minuscule part of what is available that we have to remember–and I mean not only librarians but everybody has to remember not to let it overshadow the incredible wealth of information that is available in this medium.

SPENCER MICHELS: Yet, a few librarians are lobbying for the use of filters and even other controls over what children can see. Susan Hill works for libraries in rural Ohio, and she admits she’s in a minority among librarians.

SUSAN HILL, Ohio Librarian: I want the government to go after these guys who are producing these Web pages that are pornographic. That’s what I want them to spend their money on. I don’t want the government to tell my local library or my state that it’s going to be against the law what my adults access. I want them to go after the primary source, the person who is creating this stuff. It’s obscene. It’s illegal. Most of this stuff is. They need to stop it.

SPENCER MICHELS: The questions of who is responsible and what should be available on the Net are sure to provoke even more debate as more public libraries start providing Internet access.