S.C. county library restricts children’s access to Internet

Friday, January 28, 2000

All 12-to-17-year-olds wishing to access the Internet in a South Carolina county's libraries will need permission from their parents or guardians, and adults must accompany all Web-surfing children under the age of 12. That, according to the Greenville County Library Board of Trustees, is the new rule in the county's 12 libraries.

In a Jan. 25 meeting that attracted U.S. Rep. Jim DeMint and about 40 other people, the board formally voted down two competing measures — including one that mandated the installation of Internet filters — in favor of the policy that will take effect in two weeks. The situation in the county attracted the attention of another member of Congress, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain. The Arizona senator made a stop Jan .21 at a town meeting in Greenville's library to tell a crowd that public libraries and schools that offer unlimited Internet access to children should not receive federal money.

Internet filtering software is designed to block users from accessing adult Web sites or material. Filtering is a controversial practice because the software often blocks news Web sites and other non-obscene material from view. Currently, a bill is making its way through the South Carolina Legislature that would mandate installation of Internet filters on all computers in South Carolina's publicly funded libraries and universities.

Greenville County's new Internet access policy replaces a 2-year-old free-access policy that has come under fire in recent weeks from local community members and local and state politicians. Critics claimed that the old guidelines — which allowed unrestricted use of the Internet, as long as the material accessed was not obscene under state law — was facilitating the viewing and use of pornographic materials and chat lines by some library patrons. Critics further argued that the policy needed revision because all of the main library's Internet-linked computers were grouped together without shields or partitions, making it likely that children in the area could be exposed to adult themes and material.

The call for Internet filtering at the Greenville County libraries grew out of reports in late December and early January by the Spartanburg, S.C., Herald-Journal that a group of Greenville men regularly monopolized the library's computers to view pornography and chat online for hours at a time.

County library board member Mike Green, who proposed the policy mandating installation of filters, said before the Jan. 25 meeting that “the library is a place of information and learning, not an adult bookstore.” When asked if he was worried about the possible First Amendment implications of placing Internet filters on publicly funded computers, Green said: “Obscenity and child pornography are not protected by the First Amendment and they do not have a place in the library.”

Greenville Library Director Phil Ritter told a reporter from the Herald-Journal for a Dec. 17 article that the library's unrestricted access policy had caused no major crises or challenges. He later told a reporter for The Greenville News that the old policy was almost impossible for the library staff to enforce. Reached by the First Amendment Center after the Jan. 25 meeting, Ritter declined to comment.

Green told the First Amendment Center that, while the new policy wasn't perfect, he was willing to give it a chance. “It was the best we could get. I am just happy we agreed on a policy. We are going to try this and see what happens.”