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Massachusetts libraries debate restricting patrons' Internet access

By The Associated Press


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BOSTON — Public libraries in Massachusetts are wrestling with how best to confront the ready availability of pornography on the Internet.

Librarians across the state say the issue presents immediate dangers because of local and federal filtering mandates and worries over public voyeurism and obscenity.

There's also a new fly in the ointment: the possibility that library staffers will sue to have sexual content banned from their workplaces under federal harassment laws.

"This is the top issue facing librarians today," A.J. Anderson, a professor of management at Simmons College who is teaching a summer course on the topic for librarians, told The Boston Herald. "There is a lot of tension in the profession between those who like the idea of Internet filtering and those who oppose it on censorship grounds."

Experts say the matter could get more complicated. Under the Children's Internet Protection Act, which took effect in April, libraries that receive federal aid to provide patrons with online access must install by this fall filtering technology that blocks "harmful" sites. If they do not, they face a cutoff in the subsidies.

The American Library Association says 5,000 public libraries have received $200 million in federal subsidies since 1998.

"This law imposes a one-size-fits-all federal mandate that undermines community-based library decision making," said Ann Symons, a past president of the ALA, whose group is suing to block the law on constitutional grounds. "Libraries with few public terminals would be forced to limit adult content solely to material suitable for children."

But Jan LaRue, of the Family Research Council, says it is reasonable to ask patrons to stop viewing obscene or pornographic materials online if minors are present. "Librarians freely admit they tap people on the shoulder to ask them to stop viewing inappropriate sites," she said. "Why is that constitutional, but a filter is not?"

In late July, a federal judge in Philadelphia ordered that a trial on CIPA be held in February 2002.

Library filtering policies vary across Massachusetts. In Newton and Cambridge, for example, public libraries have no filtering at any Internet portals as a matter of local policy. Other communities such as Waltham and Boston filter terminals in children's areas but leave adult terminals free of blocking technology.

"It's a tricky issue," said Thomas Jewell, chief of the Waltham Public Library. "It's impossible to satisfy everyone. We're compromising as best we can in a complex arena."

Large public libraries such as Boston's, where only the children's areas are filtered, tend to have bigger issues with customers accessing pornography in plain view.

On the second floor of Boston's main branch, in Copley Square, 10 terminals are available to patrons for 15-minute intervals. Recently, as people waited in line for a turn, two men used their time to access pornography. One of the men transferred the images to a disc.

This phenomenon has led to a second headache for the library community: charges that the open display of pornography in libraries constitutes a hostile workplace, in violation of federal equal protection laws.

In May, in a test case on the issue, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found probable cause that 12 Minneapolis public librarians were subjected to a "sexually hostile work environment," in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, because of Internet pornography.

The librarians had complained that patrons were purposefully leaving hard-core pornographic images on terminal screens, and graphic printouts of women engaged in bestiality on public tables, often to provoke or embarrass the librarians themselves.


Federal panel refuses to dismiss suits against library filtering
Judges reject government's argument that plaintiffs challenging Children's Internet Protection Act have no valid First Amendment claim.  07.27.01

EEOC view of library-porn case 'out of step' with First Amendment
Robert Peck says agency's decision that Minneapolis library patrons' smut surfing created sexually hostile workplace seems to contradict case law.  06.22.01

Library board calls Net filtering 'censorship,' agrees to it anyway
South Carolina libraries must install filters or risk losing half of their state funding.  10.01.01

West Virginia looking into Internet filters for schools
Department of Education says it must comply with Children's Internet Protection Act.  06.23.01