Michigan town gears for ballot over library Internet filters

Thursday, January 20, 2000

Irvin Bos, a key supporter of a ballot initiative in Holland, Mich., to require filters on library computers, dismisses the argument of filtering opponents that there has not been a single complaint about improper access to pornographic materials on the computers at the Herrick District Library.

“Such things as that aren’t reported,” said Bos, vice president of the Holland American Family Association, which collected the requisite number of signatures to put the issue of Internet filters on library computers on the city’s presidential primary ballot on Feb. 22. “That’s been proven countrywide whenever there have been studies.”

Asked what studies he was referring to, Bos replied, “Someone named Burt in Oregon studied this (David Burt, president of the pro-filtering group Filtering Facts). The Family Research Council (a Washington-based group with a conservative social agenda) has studied this.”

Bos said he was equally unmoved by those who say that the Herrick librarians effectively monitor computer use by patrons, young and old, to make sure that no one is exposed to objectionable material — and have policies to deal with such a situation should it arise.

“I did it myself. It took 30 seconds to get (objectionable material) online,” he said, recounting the time he took his niece to the library and watched as she typed in the word “legs.”

“We just went down a little bit (on the list providing search results), and pretty soon, there was ‘erotic legs.’ When we punched in the site, it gave you a preview of what you could find. We pulled out of it right then. Nobody stopped us at the library from doing that,” he said.

Filtering opponents, including the five members of the Library Board, say Bos’s experience is not representative of what goes on at the Herrick District Library.

“It sounds to me like if he intentionally went into that site labeled ‘erotic legs,’ he could have stopped himself from going into that site,” said Shannon Garrett, the co-chairman of the group opposing the filtering initiative. “If you’re doing a search, and you get a list of Web sites, it’s up to you to distinguish what appropriate Web sites are. I would myself choose not to go into it.”

“That’s where I see the role of parental responsibility coming in,” she continued. “The library offers courses on teaching people how to use the Internet and how to use it effectively, safely and wisely, and I assume one of the things they would talk about is how to avoid sites that are objectionable.”

Garrett also said that Bos should not assume that the librarians aren’t doing a good job of monitoring computer use and misuse just because no one stopped him.

“Librarians are not babysitters, and they’re not policemen paid to stand by and watch over everyone’s shoulder,” she said. “If somebody had reported it or if they had seen it themselves, something would have been done. It’s not fair to put a time limit on it.”

Nevertheless, in the conservative community of Holland, Garrett and her supporters are facing an uphill battle to defeat the ballot initiative that would require filters. Their problems are numerous.

The community has a strong moral and religious tradition that gives an anti-pornography message a resonance it might not have in a more politically mixed area. The issue is highly emotional and hard to counteract with experience-based arguments. And because of a decision by the Democrats to pick their presidential nominee at a state convention, most of the voters in the presidential primary are expected to be Republicans, who tend to be more socially conservative.

“We’ve got to try to get out the vote to defeat this, and we’re working hard to get out the vote,” said Eileen Talamantez, the senior member of the Herrick District Library Board and owner of an antiquarian book store.

“We’ve got some pretty naive voters in this town who thought they could not vote because they are Democrats.”

Dennis Denno, communications director for the Michigan Democratic Party, said the Democratic presidential candidates’ names were not on Michigan’s primary ballots because the state has what’s called an “open” primary, which means voters do not have to state a party affiliation to vote. In an open primary, there is no guarantee that only registered Democrats or registered Republicans will vote in their respective primaries.

Although the Michigan Democratic party is “discouraging” Democrats from casting votes in the Republican presidential primary, party officials are urging Democrats to vote on the local ballot initiatives in places such as Holland.

Garrett said filtering opponents were planning a major get-out-the-vote effort and would be targeting Democratic voters in Holland in hope of increasing the turnout. The group is also encouraging a “no” vote on the initiative because of a complicated funding situation involving the library that may make the ballot question unenforceable even if it were to pass.

The problem arises because the Herrick library is a district library, funded by Holland and taxpayers in three surrounding townships, but only Holland voters are being asked to decide on filters.

“This leaves out 75 percent of the taxpaying units,” Garrett said. “We’re encouraging the city to vote no and then have a community discussion (with) everybody involved. Lots of people are upset that this was forced onto the ballot and that it excludes so many taxpayers.”

Although library employees are precluded from getting actively involved in the campaign, the Library Board has taken a strong position against the filtering proposition.

“A decision to restrict any use of public library related resources is unacceptable to the Library Board for it would set a precedent that can affect generations to come,” the board said in a statement. “At risk is any library service and item in the library collection — past, present and future.”

Even if the filtering initiative is defeated on Feb. 22, Talamantez said, the Library Board knows that Bos and his supporters will keep pounding away on the issue.

“They would like the (library) board members removed. They mentioned that in the paper. But the only person who can remove the city board members is the governor,” Talamantez said. “If the ballot initiative doesn’t go through for the AFA, they will start again. They can keep doing this initiative option over and over. The library board right now … will not filter. We are opposed to filtering now, but at some point in the future, we might do that. I don’t know.”

Talamantez thinks that the Family Research Council, which was formerly headed by GOP presidential aspirant Gary Bauer, is watching the Holland vote closely and will move to force more voter initiatives on filtering around the country if the proposal passes.

But Jan LaRue, senior director of legal studies for the Family Research Council, said the Holland ballot initiative was not a test vote.

“I think this is the reaction of citizens in a community who feel like their elected officials aren’t responding to a reasonable request to protect children in a public library,” LaRue said. “I would hope that it (the initiative) would send a message to library boards across the country before people have to do this everywhere. I would hope people would be persuaded by reason and valid experience.”

Asked about the Library Board’s contention that there have been no reported instances of children gaining access to objectionable materials, LaRue replied, “Do you have to wait until the house burns down before we have a fire department? If they don’t think there’s a problem, why are they watching people?”