Texas public library initiates adults-only Internet zones

Friday, March 6, 1998

AUSTIN (AP)—The Austin Public Library has begun an experiment that gives adults unfettered access to the Internet while preventing children from viewing sexually explicit material on library computers.

Officials hope the two-month experiment, which began March 8 at four locations, will avoid a First Amendment lawsuit.

Since last year, when the library installed a software package called Cyber Patrol on its 56 public Internet computers, free speech advocates have been critical because adults are blocked from some material.

Libraries across the country that provide public Internet access have been seeking a balance between free speech rights and the ability of minors to download pornography.

The plan is to provide an adults-only computer terminal and printer at the downtown library, two branches and the Austin History Center. It’s the result of months of negotiations between library officials, the American Civil Liberties Union and a panel of community leaders that advises the library on Internet issues.

“In our minds, the controversy in Austin is far from over,” said Ann Beeson, an ACLU lawyer from New York. “Austin is back up on our hot list as far as possibility of litigation.”

Jay Jacobson of the Texas ACLU added, “The only reason we haven’t sued is because we’re negotiating.”

“We’re not concerned about an ACLU challenge. Of course, we prefer not to be sued,” said Brenda Branch, library director. “But we’re more concerned about protecting youth in our community and the staff from sexual harassment. That’s my prime goal.”

The library installed Cyber Patrol, which was developed for parents to use at home, after children viewed sexually explicit material on library computers.

Under the pilot program, library patrons must show proof that they are at least 18 years of age before sitting down at one of the new computer stations.

Each features a sunken monitor and a shield to restrict the view of passersby. The library spent about $6,300 for additional printers at the four computer stations and for the specialized furniture with a recessed space for the monitor.