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Alaska to Block Library Porn

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Sep 22, 2003 12:00 AM PDT    Text size: 
The adult industry may have found a powerful and profitable niche in the World Wide Web, but many advocates firmly believe that porn does not belong in public libraries.

As part of an ongoing battle being waged by free speech organizations and citizens for a safer, more child-friendly library environment, a group of anti-porn advocates in Fairbanks, Alaska are calling for the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly to review the controversial issue of installing anti-pornography filters in public library computers.

Mary Kay Barsdate, a former library commissioner and trustee, told XBiz that Anchorage has had blocks on its municipal and library computers for several years, but Fairbanks has not.

Barsdate and fellow residents of Fairbanks are making a concerted push to implement the same porn blocking policy as their Alaskan counterpart.

According to Barsdate, "Pornography on the Internet is an unlimited, uncontrolled, rapidly expanding industry. Whether by accident or by intent, library patrons (children as well as adults) have been and are being exposed to offensive, inappropriate web sites in our public library."

Barsdate also added that installing anti-porn filters is a relatively inexpensive and simple process, and that many overblocking and underblocking issues have been solved.

But the issue is far from being resolved and those who reject anti-porn filters are passionate in their opposition.

Following on the heels of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), which was signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, schools and libraries that receive specific federal funding are expected to implement Internet safety policies to block online access to porn, child pornography, and other explicit material.

However, the CIPA raised a furor among free speech organizations like the American Library Association (ALA), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which have collectively stymied the mandate, calling it a form of censorship.

The ALA challenged the CIPA last year and won in a lower court. But in June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the terms of the CIPA by ruling that the government's interest in protecting children from exposure to sexually inappropriate materials outweighs the rights of adult library patrons.

Chief Justice Rehnquist stated for the court that: "Most libraries already exclude pornography from their print collections because they deem it inappropriate for inclusion. We do not subject these decisions to heightened scrutiny; it would make little sense to treat libraries' judgments to block online pornography any differently."

Effectively, the Supreme Court ruling has put libraries in an awkward position: Either comply with the government mandate, or lose all federal funding.

In many cases, libraries have already implemented Internet policies specifically designed to combat children's exposure to online pornographic material.

Larra Clark of the ALA told XBiz that more than 95 percent of public libraries have Internet-use policies that were created with community input and local control. In many cases libraries require library cards to use the Internet, require a signed agreement to be on file, monitor computer usage or locate Internet-access stations in highly trafficked areas, among other policies.

"The ALA continues to oppose the use of filters that block access to constitutionally protected speech and believe filters are not the best way to ensure library users have a safe and enriching online experience," Clark told XBiz. "Filters are not the only, or the best, solution to protecting children online. Because filters have repeatedly been shown to let through objectionable materials, we are concerned that parents will have a false sense of security that their children are protected, when they are not."

Peter Persic of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) said that the LAPL has a specific policy not to monitor or control computer use in their citywide library branches. Instead, the LAPL feels that the primary responsibility rests in the parent or legal guardian's hands when it comes to the use of library resources, whether print, Internet, or electronic.

However, LAPL has also implemented its own child protection policies without the specific use of filtering programs that it feels effectively protect younger library patrons from exposure to porn or explicit material.

"We understand parents need some help," Persic told XBiz. "So what we have done is create a web-based service called Kids Path that helps guide children through the Internet and takes them to resources that can help them with homework, life enrichment, and all different kinds of resources. We also offer on all of our terminals the options of filtered or non-filtered search engines. In all our branches."

But for Barsdate, the issue is broader and should not just be restricted to those libraries that have federal funding, and those that do not. The issue is so controversial, she told XBiz, that the meeting agenda in Fairbanks addressing porn filters has been delayed, pending additional information gathering.

Barsdate thinks the assembly members are looking for a way to keep the ACLU and the ALA happy.

"The issue is heated primarily because the library staff has fought the issue so far," Barsdate told XBiz. "Our library staff and the ALA have taken the position that they do not wish to install filters. In my opinion that is not consistent, because traditionally libraries exclude pornographic materials from their shelves. We have not put into place any control to keep pornography out of our libraries."

According to the ALA, more than $1 billion in e-rate discounts and federal grants have gone to public libraries over the last five years.

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