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Smut Check

Meet 5 of the Minneapolis 12: (From left) Jessica Nelson, Karen Will, Julia Sedlak, Mary Kay Harris (seated), and Cynthia Smith
Tony Nelson

A year ago the Minneapolis Public Library found itself at the center of a very public maelstrom, after employees complained that patrons were using computer terminals in the downtown branch to surf the Internet for pornography. In response, library officials instituted a slew of new rules aimed at discouraging patrons with a penchant for porn: Internet users now must present a photo ID and sign up in advance to use the library's terminals; computers are available for a maximum of 30 minutes at a stretch; and signs throughout the two-story facility declare that patrons are prohibited from viewing material considered "obscene" under state law.

But by the time the measures went into effect, a dozen employees had filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging that the library's failure to regulate access to sexually offensive material had created a hostile work environment. (For more on the roots of the controversy, see "Porn Again," published in City Pages May 17, 2000.) Late last month the EEOC issued a preliminary ruling siding with the plaintiffs--going so far as to recommend that the library pay each of the so-called Minneapolis 12 a financial settlement of $75,000 to compensate them for their suffering.

For the workers who raised the issue, the EEOC opinion came as a relief. "It was a big risk for us to go to the EEOC," says Karen Will, one of the 12. "We were sort of sailing on uncharted waters, so we didn't know what to expect. We were prepared for it to go either way.

"It was validating," Will adds. "It made us feel like now there is a broader group with some authority that is taking us seriously."

Seriously indeed: Proponents of the First Amendment warn that in siding with the Minneapolis library employees, the EEOC ruling will have a chilling effect, lending credence to the argument that libraries that attempt to protect unfettered access to information may be breaking the law.

The American Library Association offers its own "Library Bill of Rights" to guide library services. According to the policy, books and other resources should not be excluded because of the views of those who created them, nor should they "be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval." Moreover, the ALA asserts that "libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment."

The proliferation of the Internet has dramatically increased the amount of information available--including information that some may consider offensive or inappropriate. Libraries nationwide have struggled with the issue. Some employ Internet filters or ban graphic sexual material, while others have adopted measures--privacy screens, sign-up policies, time limits--that stop short of creating rules evaluating what people are looking at.

But the Internet wrinkle is only the latest development in a conflict that has raged for at least a decade, notes Eugene Volokh, a professor of law at the University of California in Los Angeles. As the laws regulating workplace harassment have expanded, Volokh explains, they've butted heads with the constitutional right to free speech: While one person may be offended by a sexually explicit image displayed in the workplace, a colleague might consider it art. Now that the debate has turned to prohibiting or discouraging access to material on the Internet, Volokh argues, some libraries are actually engaging in censorship.

"Once you set a precedent that restricts speech because someone finds it offensive, this is not an easy campaign to restrain," the professor cautions. "You're protecting the defenseless employees against offensive speech. People need to realize that even though it comes draped in the mantle of civil-rights law, it is not something that they should endorse. If employees are offended by it, that's just too bad. That's the price of the First Amendment."

Bob Halagan, the local attorney who represents the 12 Minneapolis library employees, counters that his clients' case is not about free speech. "I don't see this as a First Amendment case," contends Halagan; it's about employees' rights. And although library officials hastily moved to address staffers' complaints in the wake of the ensuing publicity, the way he sees it, library administrators are still "not willing to acknowledge that for that three-year period there was an environment in the library that was unlawful."

In response to the EEOC ruling, the Minneapolis Library Board met on June 6, then issued a statement reiterating the library's mission to provide equal and open access to information and to protect the First Amendment, explaining that the library has created a policy "designed to eliminate its employees' exposure to unwelcome contact with material containing sexual content." The statement only briefly mentions the EEOC's proposed settlement, suggesting that "the Library and the claimants open a dialog to address the non-monetary concerns of these employees in a manner that balances the public's First Amendment right to access information."

 

When contacted for comment, a library spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about the proposed settlement or the "non-monetary concerns," saying she'd have nothing to say about the matter until after the board has met with its attorney on June 27.

Attorney Bob Halagan doesn't believe a settlement is forthcoming. "The library has basically told us to stick it up our nose," he says. The next likely step: His clients could file a workplace-harassment suit, or the federal government could sue on their behalf. Or both.

 

Karen Will has worked for the Minneapolis library system for about five years; during the last three she's been a reference aide at the downtown branch of the Minneapolis Public Library. Not long after the library installed public computer terminals throughout the facility a few years back to offer Internet resources to patrons, she says, she began to sense a "dehumanizing" atmosphere, as she witnessed dozens of male patrons ogling pornographic images.

"When I signed up to work at the library, I didn't sign up to work in a porn-shop-type atmosphere," explains Will, who's 46. "The line was crossed. And I wasn't going to take it anymore."

There is a thoughtfulness to Will's tone as she recalls those days. She calmly describes the scene--men leering at the graphic images, at times masturbating under their coats or responding belligerently to librarians who asked them to stop. "It's forced me to really think about how I feel about this issue," she muses, acknowledging that her case has been championed by conservative groups. "If these guys were accessing porn sites in complete privacy, where no one else could look at what they were doing or experience other types of behavior that accompanies their porn use, I wouldn't have a problem with that. But other people were confronted and hurt and violated."

Will would like to see some kind of harmony between free expression and public safety. "We don't live in an anarchy. Freedom has to go hand in hand with some responsibility," she says. "There has to be some sense of balance, and that is a very difficult task. We have to make sure people can access the information they want to access and at the same time prevent people from being personally affected by offensive, sometimes illegal, behavior."

Laws requiring filtering software in libraries have popped up in Minnesota and on the federal level, commonly tied to funding. In April the federal Children's Internet Protection Act went into effect, requiring schools and libraries that receive certain federal funds to install Internet filtering software that would block obscene or pornographic material in terminals used by children. The act, which has been challenged by the ALA and the American Civil Liberties Union, follows the passage last year of a Minnesota law requiring libraries that receive state funds to prohibit, through the use of filters or "other effective methods," adult access to obscene materials or child pornography.

But protecting people from being subjected to viewing materials they find offensive is a slippery slope. While it might be comparatively straightforward to isolate and prohibit the viewing of illegal child pornography, "obscenity" has historically been more difficult to pin down. (In Minnesota, state law only vaguely defines the term, leaving it open to interpretation.)

It's also important to note the difference between allowing people the freedom to look at material that others might consider offensive and tolerating disruptive or illegal behavior. Part of the problem with the Minneapolis library's situation, says UCLA law professor Volokh, is that after failing to enact measures to deal with bad behavior under its own roof, administrators proceeded to take drastic steps that have curtailed open access to a diverse array of material. And because the administration's initial failure prompted employees to go to the EEOC, Volokh goes on, a dilemma that could have been resolved on the local level--just as local libraries decide for themselves which volumes they will acquire for their shelves--might now result in Draconian federal regulations governing Internet use in libraries.

"They could have said, 'These are our computers, it's our property. We want a pleasant environment. We want our computers to be used for important things. If you want access to porn, do it on your own computers,'" Volokh offers--though he adds that even that level of constraint might arguably be unconstitutional. But by allowing the EEOC to enter the high-profile debate, says Volokh, "they're setting up a speech code for the nation."

Beyond that, the law professor says, the case makes apparent the threat of a potentially huge legal liability, which could easily sway not just public libraries, but private ones--even Internet cafés, for that matter--to restrict access to potentially offensive material. Where, Volokh asks, do we draw the line? What if someone takes offense at a nude figure in an impressionist painting? And what about viewpoints that may be religiously or racially offensive, such as information regarding the Ku Klux Klan or Nazism?

 

"Just about anything can be offensive to somebody," agrees Claudette Tennant, assistant director of the American Library Association's Office of Government Relations. "That line is where our difficulty lies. I'm not sure it's going to be a real hard, bright line."


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