Eyes on library ‘Net porn decision

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The battle for how far the government can go to shield children
from online pornography is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The battle for how far the government can go to shield children from online pornography is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Justices agreed to consider a challenge to a law requiring public libraries to filter Web content or lose federal funds. Under the proposed law, failure to install Internet filters in libraries would bar them from receiving technology-related federal subsidies.

The American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as local library officials, are opposed to installing Internet filters in libraries, believing them to be a form of censorship.

“Libraries are very reluctant to censor because we feel the freedom of choice for any adult is every American’s right,” said Patricia Larkin, director of the San Juan Bautista City Library. “It’s not our responsibility to be a guard for what people read or look at.”

The San Benito County Library and the San Juan Bautista City Library do not have Internet filters for their computers, but both libraries require children younger than 18 to have parental permission to surf the Internet.

Larkin is opposed to library patrons using the Internet to view pornographic sights, but said that preserving the rights of people is more important.

However, she admitted there was a problem with occasional users that do use library computers for viewing pornography.

“It’s a horrible situation. We’ve had instances where adults have looked at pornographic sights and those sights are pervasive and they have pop-ups that leave cookies on the C-drive and the kids will turn on the computer and there will be something horrendous,” Larkin said.

The only incident the San Benito Library has had was three years ago when a minor was caught viewing pornographic Web sites and was subsequently suspending of using the Internet service, said Jo Wahdan, head librarian of the San Benito County Free Library.

“Libraries have always provided free access of information to all people so it’s always been my impression it wouldn’t pass,” Wahdan said. “It would block a lot of Web sites that provide a lot of information and it’s a form of censorship.”

Wahdan also said that since the library does not have Internet availability with its public access catalogue, like some libraries do, it is easier to regulate children from using the Internet.

The county library requires that a child and a parent read the libraries’ Internet policy. The library also explains the policy and then allows the parents to determine if they want their child to use the Internet. As with other library materials, parents or legal guardians are responsible for their minors use of the Internet.

“It’s been very effective for us. We haven’t had a problem at this point in terms of someone coming in here saying, ‘Why is my child using the Internet to look at pornography,'” she said.

Santa Clara County libraries use Internet filters on all computers in the children’s area and adults have the choice to use the Internet with or without a filter. The decision came from heavy pressure from a Gilroy parental organization, Keep the Internet Decent and Safe (K.I.D.S.) a few years ago.

At the time, county library computers allowed unfiltered access to the Internet, but in response to local pressures that drew attention from regional and national media, the county’s Joint Powers Authority – a multi-jurisdictional board that governs the county’s library – instituted a countywide filter program and Internet use policy for its 10 libraries.

“I think we have a good compromise that we worked out with mandatory filters on children stations and filters are on option for adults,” said Julie Farnsworth, acting Santa Clara County librarian. “Filters are a crude tool useful to individual parents, but its not appropriate in the public environment. Requiring them as a mandatory for all people to use in public libraries is inappropriate.”

SBC County Supervisor Bob Cruz, who is working on finding land for a new county library, is opposed to library Internet filters.

“I would like to see permission from parents to use the Internet, but I would never want to see the library, which is known as a free library, censor anything,” he said.

After two laws that sought to regulate Web site operators were struck down by the Supreme Court, in 2000 then President Bill Clinton signed the Children’s Internet Protection Act that requires libraries to block images defined as obscene. It was struck down in June by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a three-judge panel determined Internet filters were unreliable and violated free-speech rights.

This year, the court upheld part of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, which required Web sites to collect credit card numbers or other proof of age before letting Internet users view material deemed harmful to minors. But justices did not rule on the law’s constitutionality and the government was barred from enforcing it.

Jon Jeisel of the Free Lance’s Gilroy Bureau contributed to this report.

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