Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Web filters at libraries are overdue

By Alex Beam, Globe Columnist, 4/1/2003

I once wrote that ''librarians are indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the universe,'' and I meant it. Their pay stinks, their working conditions are worse than at the post office, but they bring the world to us. Now librarians are caught up in a dramatic First Amendment imbroglio over the recently adopted Children's Internet Protection Act. The case, US v. American Library Association et al., has reached the Supreme Court, with the ALA and the American Civil Liberties Union aligned against the government. The government's position is: We provide $200 million annually to public libraries for computer-related programs. As a condition of this aid, we demand that you filter out Internet pornography, especially for juvenile users.

The ALA and ACLU oppose the law on more or less classic First Amendment grounds, arguing that libraries' Internet terminals are ''public forums'' where the government may not restrict speech. They feel strongly that filters or ''blocking'' technologies end up weeding out legitimate sites -- e.g., the Flesh Public Library in Piqua, Ohio -- along with the illegal child pornography and the garden-variety smut clogging up the Internet.

Well, we're all against censorship -- or are we? While the ACLU and the usual band of First Amendment zealots are demanding let-it-all-hang-out Internet access in libraries, some resistance has arisen from an unexpected constituency: librarians. In Minneapolis last week, 12 librarians sued their employer in federal court, charging that the library's three-year-old Internet sites displayed ''virtually every imaginable kind of human sexual conduct,'' contributing to an ''intimidating, hostile and offensive workplace.'' ''We were living in hell, and they were unwilling to acknowledge the problem,'' plaintiff Wendy Adamson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. In Toronto -- admittedly a city that won't be affected by the Supreme Court's decision -- a group of unruly teenagers chased a librarian out of her building when she shut off their Internet porn connection. A police officer told The Toronto Sun that teenagers consider the library better than an amusement arcade because the latter doesn't allow them free, unfettered access to all kinds of pornography.

When writer Chris Rodell interviewed librarians for a column posted on the literary website mobylives.com, none wanted to question the ALA/ACLU First Amendment party line, at least not for attribution. ''This is happening in libraries all across the country,'' one unidentified librarian told Rodell. ''Some of these children tell their parents, `Mom, I'm going to the library,' and the parents feel proud. But then some of these same kids and many adults will spend hours watching pornographic web sites right out in the open. It's very upsetting to some of our older librarians. But it's a First Amendment issue and there's not a thing we can do about it.''

That's not quite true. We can do several things. One is to accept the limitations of the much-derided filters and use them anyway. The government argues, convincingly, that when libraries use the filters, ''They are simply declining to put on their computer screens the same content they have traditionally excluded from their bookshelves.'' A second possibility is the so-called ''Boston solution,'' adopted several years ago in Copley Square by the nation's oldest public library.

At the Boston Public Library, president Bernard Margolis explains, the children's and teenagers' rooms have Internet terminals that filter out porn. The grown-ups use different computers and can visit the Flesh Public Library or order the Flesh Gordon video. If a person under 18 wants access to the wider world of Web wonders, he or she can get it, with signed permission from a parent. ''That puts the decision with the parent, where it belongs, and not with us,'' Margolis says.

I know where I stand on this. I'm behind the government and I'm tired of First Amendment shilly-shallying that fills my children's Hotmail screens with dozens of porn come-ons every day. But I will defer to Justice David Souter's eventual opinion in US v. ALA, (1) because he cares about the First Amendment in an intelligent way, and (2) because it was once said of him, correctly, that ''he regards Boston as the center of the civilized world.''

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist.

His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

This story ran on page E1 of the Boston Globe on 4/1/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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