May 16, 1997


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Although still in the minority, public libraries in increasing numbers are installing computers with Internet hook-ups. As they do so, they come under local pressure to impose filtering or blocking software so that their patrons—especially children—cannot see dirty pictures, Nazi propaganda, or whatever else fearful citizens find objectionable.

Well-known for their fierce defense of open access to information, librarians have been unanimously stating a preference to have electronic hook-ups without blocking. Some of their critics claim that the librarians have a right to select Internet sites just as they do books and periodicals. But it can be argued legally that to provide an Internet hook-up and install a filter on top of it is the same as removing books from the library shelves, a practice that has been tested in the courts and found unconstitutional (because libraries are government institutions and must respect First Amendment rights). In other words, advocates for librarians recognize a difference between “selection” and “censorship,” and tend to put Internet filters in the latter category.

Furthermore, librarians long ago examined the question of whether minors should have access to any available information, and declared that their choices should be unhampered. The American Library Association is strictly principled and unambiguous on this issue. Recently re-examining its Library Bill of Rights in the light of new materials made available by electronic networks, the ALA says that libraries should “extend unfettered access to electronic information resources to minors.” The filters currently available are a form of censorship, because they “would place the library in a position of restricting access to information that might be objectionable to some users.” Librarians must not hold up access to youth by requiring parental approval. Nor should they “deny access to information solely on the grounds that it is perceived to lack value.”

Librarians have also traditionally opposed rating systems, such as that used in the movie industry. These systems force the creative breadth of human expression into Procrustian categories that can prejudice potential readers. Even worse, they set up a situation ripe for later censorship: the materials come already labeled, and can be culled quickly if an oppressive regime decides to restrict access at any time in the future. On May 8, the American Library Association reiterated their rejection of ratings when asking the FCC not to create ratings for television shows. It is no surprise that librarians are reluctant to use software that rates sites as acceptable for children.

In Boston, over the protests of librarians, Mayor Thomas Menino recently required the libraries to install blocking software. Local commentators called this a typical anti-pornography campaign, done for the PR, and all the more popular because the civil libertarians complained loudly. The software the librarians finally agreed upon is relatively sophisticated, in that it allows librarians to choose sites instead of using arbitrary criteria or a previously chosen list maintained by the software company. Still, this feature could put the decision at particular risk of being declared unconstitutional, according to an article by attorney Jonathan D. Wallace, because choosing sites to block is clearly analogous to removing books from shelves.

Internet connections can certainly lead to annoying situations. Several cases have been reported in which mischievous individuals have brought up pornographic images and left them in full view. Librarians have suggested several sensible measures to minimize this annoyance without engaging in censorship, including the relocation of computers in out-of-the-way cubicles surrounded by walls, and the installation of screen savers that cause images to vanish after a given amount of time.

But filtering and blocking software strikes wounds deeply into role of the library as a key democratic institution. And such software affects all patrons, not just youth. An adult researching the latest news about a medical problem may find help unavailable, simply because the problem is located in the wrong part of the body.

The failure of the notorious Communications Decency Act to pass court approval so far is a good omen for Internet access. But there are always meddlers who believe that anything in a public place is fair game for imposing their opinions. As more and more information moves to an electronic format and medium, young people may have to go underground to retrieve it.

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