Another community faces a Net loss in freedom

Tuesday, November 30, 1999

The Herrick District Library serves the city of Holland and the townships of Holland, Park and Laketown in Michigan. The staff and board work hard to make sure that patrons enjoy and benefit from their library experience, including accessing the Internet on the library’s computers.

Librarians monitor computer use to make sure no patron, young or old, is inadvertently exposed to objectionable material. They limit individual sessions to 30 minutes. They reserve the right to interrupt sessions if they think the computers are being misused. They keep a watch on computer printouts at a centrally located printer. And they invite parents to be the final authorities on which library resources are appropriate for their children.

The policy seems to have worked. The library has not had a single complaint about either children or adults accessing offensive material on the library’s computers.

Nevertheless, like many other local libraries across America the Herrick District Library is the target of an angry citizens group that claims it is a hangout for pedophiles, that it wantonly distributes pornography to children, that it promotes “Internet addiction” and, worst of all, is in thrall to the American Library Association’s anti-censorship policies.

This is not just idle chatter. The deadline is today for petitions for a ballot initiative to force the library to install filtering software on its computers. If the ordinance makes it onto the Feb. 22 ballot, the Holland library apparently will be the first in the nation to face such a vote. Efforts elsewhere to restrict Internet access in public libraries have involved state legislation, lawsuits and new policies by library boards. Thus far, those efforts have not met with court approval.

While the ballot approach may be unusual, Holland is no different from hundreds of communities across the nation where activists are trying to restrict Internet access at public libraries. In Holland’s case, the local affiliate of the American Family Association, based in Tupelo, Miss., is the driving force behind the effort to have filtering software installed on the library’s computers. The Holland American Family Association claims that in essence the library is sponsoring “a peep show” by not filtering Internet material.

“The people of Holland have every right to decide that libraries in our community should stop offering free access to pornography in public buildings where adults and young children share restrooms and other facilities,” HAFA President James Rozeboom said in a press release.

The group’s vice president, Irv Bos, declared that material available in the Holland library was “what the FBI says is a primary solicitation tool for pedophiles and the leading factor in the doubling this year alone of its caseload of child sexual exploitation cases.”

Last month, HAFA invited anti-porn crusader Phil Burress to a meeting in Holland. “If word got out that you don’t have blocking software, pedophiles will come in,” Burress told the gathering of about 60 people. Ironically, they met in the auditorium of the library.

In response to an editorial in The Holland Sentinel castigating his organization for trying to link the Internet to the sexual assault of a girl in the library in Muskegon “without a shred of evidence,” Rozeboom charged that the newspaper was “defending materials that are obscene, sexually explicit, and harmful to minors.”

He went on to write that “there is a large percentage of parents who don’t care, and there is a large percentage of parents who do care but are single-parent working moms and dads who are often on the job while their children are doing research at the library. There are also some who have lost control of their children. These are most often (according to statistics) the children who could become a danger to our society and most easily influenced by the pornography and harmful materials on the Internet.”

Filtering software “does not hinder access to worthwhile Web sites,” Rozeboom said. “A study done on Utah school filtering finds that about one in a million Web sites is wrongly blocked — a small price to pay for the safety of our children.”

Several citizens, as well as the mayor and other elected officials, have spoken out against the HAFA campaign. They point out that much, much more than “one in a million” sites are wrongly blocked by filtering software; that obscenity and child pornography are not only illegal but not routinely available, let alone easily accessible, on the Internet; that library policies and procedures have created a safe, nurturing environment; that adults must not be reduced to the level of children in their intellectual pursuits; and that the First Amendment does not allow even the majority to dictate an approved list of what material a public library may provide. But the citizens group has not been deterred.

And so it goes in communities large and small.

Campaigns to restrict access to the Internet in public libraries are well organized, sophisticated and determined. No doubt, those driving such campaigns are sincere and dedicated. But such campaigns inevitably play out the same: They distort the facts, divide the community and deflect attention and resources from real problems.

They are marked by assertions that don’t necessarily comport with the facts. They are energized by scare stories and anecdotes. They thrive on ignorance of the Internet and the library environment and policies. They tap into a wellspring of parental fears. They demonize hard-working and conscientious librarians. And they exploit the children in the interest of an agenda that almost always seeks to restrict everyone’s access to the Internet, not just the children’s.

When confronted with the reality that valuable speech will be censored along with that which they find objectionable, these folks are unfazed. They are more than willing to sacrifice others’ rights for their agenda.

And as the petition drive ends in Holland, another one using the same draft petition begins in nearby Hudsonville. The Hudsonville library installed sophisticated filtering software on its computers some time ago to ward off such an eventuality. But the campaign organizers march on. So much freedom. So little time.

Paul McMasters may be contacted at