Porn Again

The Minneapolis Public Library hustles to the vanguard of the anti-smut crusade

It was an awesome display of media influence. WCCO-TV (Channel 4) takes hold of the May ratings sweeps with an exposé about perverts who masturbate while surfing the Internet for porn at the Minneapolis Public Library's downtown branch. And before you can say, "Bob's your dirty old uncle," public officials are launching censorship initiatives right and left.

The two-part story, titled "Secret in the Stacks" and narrated by Dimension reporter Trish Van Pilsum, depicted library visitors' rampant use of computers to view sexually explicit Web sites in plain view of other patrons, and criticized the administration's failure to address the issue. Even as WCCO's investigative team drew a bead on its next scandalous target (spring-break debauchery in Mexico!), the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill requiring state-funded libraries and schools to filter out or otherwise prohibit people from viewing "material that under federal or state law is reasonably believed to be obscene or child pornography" and to throw out any patron, young or old, who manages to gain access to the stuff.

Seven librarians who work at the downtown Minneapolis branch filed a sex-discrimination complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that the library's policies regarding Internet access and printing services created a "hostile and offensive working environment."

And the library's own board of trustees hastily drafted a new policy on Internet use that would create 30-minute time limits for each computer, implement a sign-up procedure (photo ID required), and allow no more than two people at a time to use each terminal. It would prevent children from visiting sites considered harmful to them and altogether prohibit the viewing of "obscene" material (as does the new state legislation). Signs were immediately posted around the library warning that patrons may not view material that violates Minnesota's laws on obscenity.

It wasn't as if WCCO's story marked the first time the topic had popped up. Back in February the Star Tribune had run an opinion piece by a Minneapolis mom who complained about being confronted with porn when she went to the downtown library. The piece prompted a letter to the editor signed by 47 library staff members who agreed. After a subsequent news story exploring the issue, U.S. Senate hopeful David Lillehaug held a press conference outside the library calling for the institution to protect children from pornography on the Internet. (See Off Beat, March 1.)

Through it all, the Minneapolis Public Library remained staunchly opposed to censorship of the Internet. Director Mary Lawson repeatedly appeared in the media defending First Amendment rights and citing the library's role to protect freedom and offer unfettered access to information. Library spokeswoman Kristi Gibson says the recent turnaround is not a retreat from those beliefs, but allows, "It's definitely a recognition that the Internet is a different medium than we've encountered and dealt with in terms of library material. It's pretty clear that the general public feels that the display of obscenity is in violation of the law." Deciding what is obscene is a gray area, even under the state statute, Gibson acknowledges. "We have to act on our best judgment with the interests of all library users in mind," she explains. "We hopefully will not err either way and allow the right to privacy, to view or research and learn what you need to learn. But there has to be an element of judgment."

Although the library formed a committee last fall to create rules for Internet use (privacy screens were put in place in February in response to staff complaints, but according to Gibson they don't completely prevent passersby from seeing what's on the screen), no guidelines had emerged when the WCCO story aired. "With the perceived public concern about the issue after the media attention, the board decided to accelerate that decision," Gibson says.

In its haste to take action, Lawson and the library board are garbling several crucial issues, says Kim Edson, who chairs the intellectual-freedom committee of the Minnesota Library Association. While certain material on the Internet may be illegal, singling it out is tricky. "Only the courts have the constitutional authority to determine what is obscene," Edson points out. "That's not a librarian's job."

The terminology defining "obscenity" in Minnesota's statutes is subjective, peppered with references to "contemporary community standards," and to material that "appeals to the prurient interest in sex" that lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" and is presented "in a patently offensive manner."

Says Edson: "It's a very fine line to tread. Obscenity is very difficult to define. One person's pornography may be a very effective safe-sex presentation to another. The mission of the library is to provide access to information, not to restrict it," she adds. "Protecting children is good, but if you chop away First Amendment rights [in order] to protect them, what's going to be left for them when they grow up?"

Libraries historically have been places of open access, where one and all can come to seek information. But while libraries can control the books and materials they bring into their collections, they cannot control what is on the Internet. And that, Edson says, is why the debate about free and open Internet access in libraries is such a difficult one: It never came up before. She believes that libraries must be careful to draw a distinction between allowing patrons to view material that might be offensive to some, and permitting them to act in ways that are disruptive or illegal. "You're looking not at the content, but at the behavior," she argues.

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