Filtering activist claims many public libraries ignoring FOI requests

Tuesday, April 6, 1999

Filtering Facts founder David Burt says his effort to discover problems public libraries face with patrons who access online pornography has been stifled by refusals to comply with his freedom-of-information requests.

From November 1998 to January 1999, Burt sent letters to 613 public libraries requesting the release of library records showing “any patron and staff complaints about patrons accessing inappropriate material on public Internet terminals.”

In some of the letters, he wrote: “I know that my organization is a controversial one within the library profession, so this is an excellent opportunity for your library to demonstrate its commitment to the practice as well as the principles of intellectual freedom.”

According to Burt's report, “Dangerous Access: The Epidemic of Pornography in America's Public Libraries and the Threat to Children,” 293 libraries ignored his request. Another 15 libraries sent letters refusing to comply. As for the libraries that did comply, 216 reported no incidents and the remaining 89 reported a combined 450 incidents.

Nearly all of the 15 public libraries that refused Burt's request cited state law protecting library-patron confidentiality.

Burt views this as a subterfuge to avoid the release of information damaging to the libraries. “They don't want to release the information because of what I am doing with the information,” he said. “The information could make the libraries look bad, and they are denying the requests to silence my viewpoint.”

Burt has enlisted legal assistance from the American Family Association to force the libraries to disclose the information he seeks. Michael J. DePrimo, an AFA staff attorney, sent letters on March 23 to three of the 15 libraries that had refused Burt's request in writing — the Denver Public Library, the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library and the St. Louis Public Library.

DePrimo said yesterday that he had received a response from the St. Louis Public Library again denying Burt's request. DePrimo said he had not yet heard from the Denver and Indianapolis public libraries.

Dr. Glen E. Holt, the executive director of the St. Louis Public Library, was out of the office and unavailable for comment.

Burt says he is prepared to take legal action if the libraries continue to deny his requests.

He notes that one public library has agreed to provide him with the information after consulting with the state attorney's office. The San Antonio Public Library told Burt that it had to check with state lawyers to determine whether it could provide the information.

June Garcia, director of the San Antonio Public Library, said: “It was always our intent to provide information within the law. We initially did not know which set of government laws — freedom-of-information laws or library-confidentiality legislation — took precedence.”

William Walker, a Texas assistant attorney general in the open records division, sent a letter to the San Antonio library saying that Texas law requires release of the requested information minus the “names, addresses and other information specifically identifying library patrons.”

Garcia says that the information will soon be sent to Burt. “There was never any intent to hide information. I am a firm believer in the First Amendment. It would be ironic if this library — which refuses to filter the Internet based on First Amendment concerns — would not provide public information to Mr. Burt.”

DePrimo criticizes the libraries that cite patron confidentiality in refusing to comply with Burt's requests.

“The privacy concern is a non-issue because we are not seeking the identity of patrons; in fact, the names can be redacted out of the requested documents,” DePrimo said. “This is public information. The patron-privacy concerns are a bunch of baloney.

“Government hypocrisy is nothing new,” he said.

Burt says he will continue his search for the information so that he can inform the public about the dangers of pornography in public libraries.

Garcia agrees that Burt has the right to gather the information even though she disagrees with him on the filtering issue. “You can't uphold principles of intellectual freedom in one area and then deny them in another area,” she said.