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Porn Again

John Pritchett

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.

It remains unclear exactly how the Minneapolis Public Library's new policy will take shape--and how it will be enforced--but it undoubtedly will open the door to restrictions that go beyond eliminating disruptions in the library, and into the realm of each person's freedom to look at whatever he or she likes. Moreover, Edson predicts, when libraries statewide begin to interpret the new law prohibiting online viewing of obscenity, many may opt to use filtering software, which tends to weed out certain legitimate sites along with the "offensive" ones.

Policing the problem is not the answer, says local library gadfly Sandy Berman. The former head cataloger for the Hennepin County Library system (a separate entity from the Minneapolis Public Library), Berman calls the proposed measures "draconian." "Librarians should not feel comfortable being moral police. What people are looking at, reading, thinking should not be their business," Berman declares. "Libraries should be the last refuge for people, not necessarily to access pornography, but to access whatever they want, in a nonthreatening atmosphere."

Berman points out that the handwringing over pornography in the library usually involves calls to protect children, and stems from the fear and discomfort Americans exhibit when it comes to discussing sex. That's why, he maintains, people seem so concerned about sexual images being displayed in public but have voiced fewer concerns about violent images, such as photographs from wars or natural disasters. "Dismemberment, death, mutilation--you can find that fairly easily," he notes.

As WCCO's Trish Van Pilsum breathlessly pointed out, public libraries in some U.S. cities have taken steps to prohibit patrons from viewing Internet porn. But others--including those in many of the larger municipalities--have opted to avoid such controls. The New York Public Library, for instance, doesn't prevent patrons from looking at anything on the Web. All of the library's computers have privacy screens, and users must sign up in advance. There are time limits--sometimes 30 minutes, sometimes 15. "People don't have too much time to get in trouble," offers spokeswoman Caroline Oyama.

The Los Angeles Public Library uses screens, sign-ups, and time limits, and also has opted not to censor Internet access, according to spokesman Peter Persic. "Equity of access for all people--that's one of our core values," says Persic, who adds that while some terminals in each library are designated for children's use and open to a page of filtered search engines, even those machines allow unfettered Internet access if the user opts for it.

The Chicago Public Library has followed a similar path. In the children's department, librarians keep an eye on what kids are looking at and redirect them if they seem to be looking at inappropriate Web sites, says library commissioner Mary Dempsey. But in the adult areas, patrons are free to view anything, including pornographic sites. "Adults have a right to look at those things. Adult terminals have privacy screens. If they want to look at it, that's fine. But you don't have to look at it, and I don't have to look at it," Dempsey says. "People are free to surf. We're a big city, with 3 million people. What is objectionable to one person is not necessarily objectionable to another."

Oyama, Persic, and Dempsey say they've encountered only isolated instances of patrons complaining about people using the computers for porn surfing. That has not been the case in Denver, where the matter is a daily dilemma, according to Linda Cumming, director of the city's central library. Still, says Cumming, "We don't pass judgment on what other people are looking at. We are still fierce proponents of First Amendment rights." The Denver library does expressly forbid using its computers for e-mail, chat rooms, or illegal activity, including tampering with the library's network and viewing child pornography (although Cumming notes that some pornographic images that seem to depict children actually show adults who are made to look younger). The library has also installed privacy screens and oriented terminals so they do not face common aisles. About two years ago a central printing system was created so that computer users must pick up printouts at the librarian's desk--a move that Cumming says cut in half the amount of porn being printed at the library.  

Cumming says her administration has had many sessions with staff members to discuss the porn situation and their frustrations with it. "We sympathize with them wholeheartedly and find it to be a very sad state of affairs. We tell them to avert their eyes," she adds, explaining that that's the stance the Denver City Attorney can defend. "Just because it's there doesn't mean you have to look at it or be harassed by it. It's not intentional. It's a hazard of the job you've taken."


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