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Filtering free speech in public libraries

  • AuthorJohn D. Thomas
  • Published Friday, May 24th, 2013
  • Comments0

My son just celebrated his first birthday. I guarantee that before he is 10, he will see some very disturbing things online, no matter how closely his mother and I watch him, and no matter how many filters and blocks we apply to his Internet access. He’s already a very inquisitive child with a willful mind of his own, and I can only imagine some of the dark roads of the information superhighway he is going to roar down. It’s a scary thought, and as parents, I only hope that my wife and I can be smart about protecting him as much as possible, while also preparing him for some of the truly twisted things he is bound to see.

In pondering the idea of setting up barriers between my son and the web content that, as a parent, I think he should not view, I began to think about what responsibility (if any) a public library has in helping me protect him, or other children, from digital danger. When I researched the topic, I found a recent news article about an event that occurred at a library not far from my home.

An April 14 headline in the Chicago Sun-Times trumpeted, “Man Watching Porn at Library Prompts Mom’s Petition.” According to the story, “After one River North mom saw a library patron using one of the free computers to watch porn, it took but a day before a fellow mom drafted a petition to block porn at public libraries.”

Excuse me? Porn isn’t already blocked at public libraries?

According to Bob Doyle, executive director of the Illinois Library Association, “Even if you do have filters on computers, they provide that false sense of security. There is some material that some people would consider to be inappropriate that still can be accessed, and at the same time, they can block access to constitutionally protected speech.”

The Chicago Public Library’s website contains this  official statement on the matter: “All Chicago Public Library locations offer free wireless access. All you need is a wireless-enabled device. The Library’s network is open to all visitors and offered without filters. No special encryption settings, usernames or passwords are required.”

But what about public libraries in other cities? Do they have the same progressive approach when it comes to internet access? What about New York City, a place known for its open mindedness? Not so much.

In a long and quite convoluted section about filtering, the New York Public Library’s website explains the following:

 “As required by the Children’s Internet Protection Act (‘CIPA’), in order to remain eligible for certain federal funding, the Library has implemented software filtering on all of its Internet-accessible computer terminals. The software installed on Internet-accessible computers at the Library protects against access to visual depictions of obscenity, child pornography, and, in the case of persons under the age of 17 years, materials that are ‘harmful to minors.’ Users should be aware, however, that all currently available filtering software results in a degree of both ‘underblocking’ (i.e., permitting access to certain material that falls within the foregoing categories) and ‘overblocking’ (i.e., denying access to certain constitutionally protected material that does not fall within the foregoing categories). The Library has attempted to select filtering software that best complies with CIPA while providing Library users with the broadest possible access to constitutionally protected speech and information. The Library cannot and does not guarantee that the filtering software will block all obscenity, child pornography, or materials that are harmful to minors. Nor can the Library guarantee that the filtering software will not restrict access to sites that may have legitimate research or other value. In order to help address the overblocking problem and to enhance users’ access to constitutionally protected speech and information, the Library requests that all users, both adults and minors, contact the Library at (or at such other contact point as the Library shall designate from time to time) to request unblocking of an incorrectly blocked site. In addition, any user who is 17 years of age or older may disable the filtering software in order to obtain unfiltered Internet access for bona fide research or other lawful purpose by following the instructions provided on the computer screen or such instructions as the Library shall otherwise provide from time to time.”

Wow. That is some serious bureaucratese.

After reading the Big Apple’s public library filtering policy, a great debate began to rage in my head. Should people be free to search and surf the Web as they please in a public library—as they can in Chicago—or should a library not only block adults from accessing “adult” material, but also restrict minors from material that might be “harmful,” as is done in New York.

My conclusion? Score one for Chicago. That doesn’t mean that I am in favor of people using libraries to watch adult movies, which my son might not only search for himself once he hears about them, but also might inadvertently see if he passed by a terminal on which someone was watching something explicit.

That risk, in my opinion, far outweighs the serious free speech issues associated with making often arbitrary decisions about what content a person can and can’t see. If you write a policy about access to digital information that includes the phrase, “Nor can the Library guarantee that the filtering software will not restrict access to sites that may have legitimate research or other value,” then you have entered a twisted Orwellian netherworld ruled by non-human software information filters. And that’s much more terrifying than anything my son might see on a computer screen in a public library.

Chicago-based writer John D. Thomas is author of the recently released “Great Expectorations: The Cultural History of Saliva from Jesus Christ to Iggy Pop.”

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