Public libraries protect free flow of ideas

Saturday, April 15, 2000

Children should not be exposed to pornography on computers at the public library.

That’s not a tough call. Surely, it’s not in the best interests of society for children to see sexually provocative material intended for adults.

It’s such an obvious statement that those who support mandatory Internet filtering for public libraries are mystified at the opposition to their cause. After all, they reason, librarians have always made choices. They decide to purchase some books for the library and not purchase others, based on a sense of editorial merit and community need.

Unfortunately, that perspective doesn’t take into account the unique nature of the Internet. When you connect a computer to the Internet, it is like turning on a water tap. Information flows in a steady stream.

Filtering isn’t about making decisions about what to bring into the library. It’s a decision to keep information out.

The Internet is the functional equivalent of a mammoth moving van pulling up to the front of the public library. The van is full of books, representing every imaginable idea. And they’re all free. Which ideas do we allow in? Whom do we trust to decide which of these “books” contain good ideas and which ones bad?

Most librarians don’t want the assignment of limiting access to Internet content. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom writes: “Intellectual freedom can exist only where two essential conditions are met: first, that all individuals have the right to hold any belief on any subject and to convey their ideas in any form they deem appropriate; and second, that society makes an equal commitment to the right of unrestricted access to information and ideas regardless of the communication medium … .”

In taking that courageous stance, librarians have taken a beating. They are clinging to the ideals of the First Amendment but end up being accused of creating havens for deviants who pursue the Internet for salacious images.

The general public appears to have its own qualms about mandatory filtering. Last month, in the first effort to put the issue on the ballot, residents of Holland, Mich., voted 4,379 to 3,626 against an ordinance that would have required the public library to install Internet filters.

Beyond the general philosophy that information needs to be free and accessible in public libraries, there are significant problems with the filtering process itself.

The filtering of the Internet is typically done by a private business that develops standards about what is appropriate content and what is not. In this country, we would never stand for subcontracting the selection of appropriate books.

Filters are also notoriously flawed. They tend to look for certain words and phrases that suggest salacious or hateful content and then filter out those sites. This is the equivalent of eliminating entire books just because of specific words on specific pages.

This double whammy of for-profit groups selling deeply flawed software to public institutions may well keep most porn sites off library computer screens, but it also prevents a good number of constitutionally protected ideas from entering the library.

Our own site at contains news reports and educational background on constitutional issues. We’ve often found that our content is blocked by software filters, apparently because of our occasional references to pornography and obscenity.

There have been many reports of sex education material being filtered, and we’ve all heard stories about breast cancer sites being blocked.

The most ludicrous example of blocking constitutionally protected material came, however, in the days before Super Bowl XXXIV. The “XXX” in the Roman numerals of Super Bowl XXXIV reportedly led to the filtering out of Web sites previewing the game.

In the end, the concept is simple: Under the terms of the First Amendment, government has no right to decide which ideas are good and which ideas are bad. It only adds insult to injury when officials try to perform that unconstitutional act using flawed and unreliable technology.

That does not mean, however, that libraries can’t take steps to help keep inappropriate content away from children. Many libraries have implemented policies that provide free and open access of the Internet on terminals in the adult section of the library. In areas reserved for children, there can be some age-appropriate filtering with a heightened presence of librarians.

Still, if a child insists on using an unfiltered terminal, librarians are unlikely to stop him. Librarians have no desire to be censors or surrogate guardians. Parents need to establish their own rules for their children.

As the Newark Public Library states in its Internet use policy: “As with all Library resources, the Library affirms the right and responsibility of parents/guardians, NOT Library staff, to determine and monitor their children’s use of the Internet. Parental supervision of children searching the Internet is advised.” In the end, the two best filters in the world are named “Mom” and “Dad.”