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Forget banning books, let's burn the library

Ombudsman

By Paul McMasters
First Amendment Ombudsman
First Amendment Center
pmcmasters@freedomforum.org

02.14.00

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The library is a monument to all the best impulses in the human mind and spirit. It is a tribute to wisdom and understanding. No community is complete without one.

So why is it that in so many communities across this land mobs are marching on libraries with pitchforks and torches?

Aside from scattered skirmishes over Harry Potter books and such, the outrage of choice these days is Internet "pornography" — a word that appears to cover a multitude of sins.

In New York City, in Greenville, S.C., in Elk Grove Village, Ill., and a great number of other places, officials and citizens are trying to deal with the heated issue of whether filtering software should be installed on computers available to the general public.

Western Michigan finds itself a particular hotbed of such activity. For several months, Hudsonville, Georgetown, Holland and other communities have been grappling with this issue. Outcomes vary. One library surrendered and installed filters; another simply pulled the plug on its computers. In Holland, the battle continues.

The American Family Association, through its local affiliate, launched an initiative campaign targeting the district library in Holland last year. Later the Family Research Council joined the effort. Concerned Women of America and Focus on the Family have since signed on. Taking on these national organizations and siding with the library board against required filtering is a small local organization, Families for Internet Access, that has proved uncommonly energetic and effective.

The initiative, which is on the ballot in the Feb. 22 Republican primary election, requires the city of Holland to withhold its annual contribution of $1.2 million to the district library if its fails to "restrict internet access to obscene, sexually explicit or other material harmful to minors." The library serves three townships in addition to the city of Holland, but only city residents will be allowed to vote on the proposal.

This initiative approach to restricting access to library computers apparently is the first in the nation. Besides extensive coverage in the local media, the Associated Press, The New York Times, CNN and ABC News have covered it. Presidential candidate John McCain and former candidate Steve Forbes both weighed in on the side of filtering. Dr. Laura Schlessinger has supported the initiative on her national radio show and Web site.

A string of court decisions have struck down federal, state and local attempts to regulate Internet content, including one attempt to impose filtering on library computers. But porn on the Net is such a sexy issue that state and federal lawmakers continue to introduce proposals to regulate Internet speech. In the last week alone, legislation along these lines has moved forward in Utah, Indiana, Missouri and, yes, Michigan.

With all that, ordinary citizens in communities across the nation still are the driving force behind the challenges to Internet access in public libraries. Good people with grave concerns are drawn to the issue because they care about their children. Indeed, the issue is so emotionally gripping that more often than not legal, logical and ethical niceties get lost in the debate.

To begin with, those leading the filtering charge assert the problem, rather than demonstrate it. They seldom bother to discuss the issue with the library staff before declaring the menace exists. To them, the number of complaints by patrons or the amount and type of pornography allegedly accessible is immaterial. It is enough for the would-be censors that they know someone who knows someone who has said there is a problem.

They are not too explicit in defining the material they consider pornographic, either. They apparently believe that material as varied as lingerie ads, images of starlets in bikinis, and information about medical matters and alternative lifestyles is as noxious as hard-core material.

They do not bother to make a distinction between pornography, which is an umbrella term for material that may or may not be protected by the First Amendment, and such terms as "obscenity," "child pornography" or "harmful to minors," which are not protected. Neither do they concede that material cannot be deemed obscene or harmful by a librarian, a patron, a parent or an organization — and certainly not by a computer program. That determination must come through the legal process.

Also, the champions of decency believe that while pornography is bad in whatever medium it appears, it assumes a peculiar power on the Internet. In their view, Internet porn has the ability to leap unbidden from the bowels of the computer onto the screen, terrorizing children, traumatizing adults, and scandalizing anyone in the immediate vicinity.

No wonder the people who work in, make policy for or support the libraries are caught by surprise and, at any rate, are woefully unprepared to defend themselves when the Internet filtering campaign raises its divisive head.

Invariably, the attack is swift, across-the-board, well organized, well financed. The campaigners brandish tales of sexual horror threatening the life and sanctity of the community. By the time community leaders and library supporters muster a response, the problem is asserted, the solution determined, and the public mind fairly well made up.

The message of these campaigns is simple: "Your friends, neighbors and family members who work at the library have allowed it to become a haven for perverts and a hangout for pedophiles. The library won't be safe until we've driven out the devil technology."

The campaign tactics can be as bruising as the message is brutal. Here are just a few of the unpleasant things that may unfold:

  • The nature of the problem is fabricated or exaggerated.
  • So-called "porn addicts" are called in from elsewhere to spread the panic.

  • Filtering demonstrations make it appear that pornography is easily, accidentally and instantly accessible.
  • The campaign is emotionalized and personalized. Library staff, trustees and supporters are harassed with anonymous calls in the night and vilification in public meetings.
  • New faces appear in the library's stacks, poring over book titles, traipsing through the periodicals section and video collection, taking notes.
  • There is a sudden, unexplained increase in "complaints" about indecent material.
  • Residents are harangued by "push polls" that have more to do with influencing respondents than with surveying public attitudes.
  • Then there are the distortions, misstatements and worse. Just one example: In both Michigan and Illinois, filtering proponents have blamed the rape of a 10-year-old girl in a Muskegon, Mich., library on the lack of Internet filtering. That flies in the face of the facts, of course. The prosecutor (a filtering proponent, by the way) says there was absolutely no connection.

    Then there is the big lie: that filtering software will solve the problem, whether it exists or not. The truth is that filtering programs, no matter which brand, simply cannot "solve" the problem of offensive material on the Internet.

    They don't block sites that they say they will. They do block sites they say they won't. It is not possible for software or humans to properly monitor or label Internet content. The more than 1.5 billion Web pages on the World Wide Web change constantly, and thousands of sites and millions of pages are added every day. Filtering programs can't reliably determine what is acceptable for an adult but not a child, or for that matter what might "harm" one 12-year-old and inform another 12-year-old.

    Most filtering software vendors won't reveal their criteria for blocking sites — some of which go far beyond the merely offensive and into political, religious or ideological reasons. Most don't provide lists of sites that are blocked, so users have no way of knowing what useful content they are being denied.

    Filters are expensive to install and maintain. But that is a paltry amount compared to the taxpayer dollars required to defend against lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the filtering policy. There is no way to measure the cost of degrading the potential of the Internet as a learning tool.

    Despite all that, the filtering forces have a good chance of prevailing when they target the local library.

    Why? Because those who oppose censorship rely on good hearts and common sense to work such things out. They fail to recognize the depth of guilt felt by parents who yearn for technology to help them guide and protect their children. They fail to measure the scope of Internet illiteracy in the general populace. They fail to understand the power and the passion generated by the fear of sex.

    Finally, there is the inevitable leadership vacuum in such matters. Elected officials want to be on the right side of this issue, meaning the side of values, decency and simple solutions. Community leaders are slow to get involved and quick to compromise. Religious leaders don't want to be seen as soft on porn.

    All of this allows the community to avoid the larger issues behind the campaign to regulate Internet content in the public library.

    This campaign is not just about pornography. It is also about hate speech, violence, feminism, New Age religion, alternative lifestyles, and other kinds of expression some find offensive or inimical to their view of the world.

    It is not just about the Internet. It is also about the library's video offerings, its periodicals list, and the books it makes available.

    It is not even just about the library. It is also about schools, museums and other institutions. It is about who gets to set and control the intellectual, cultural, and political agenda for the community.

    This leads, finally, to a painful question for each community that is wracked by this campaign: "When it's all over, what have we done for our children in the name of protecting them?"

    The answer is equally painful.

    We've taught them to do whatever is necessary to win. We've taught them that librarians are evil people and libraries are dangerous places. We've taught them that what we can't accomplish by reason and persuasion we should accomplish by coercion. We've taught them that we have so little faith in our own parenting that we'll let a computer program establish and enforce our standards for us.

    What we need to teach our children — and example is the best teacher — is that democratic traditions and fair discourse have served us well for two centuries and that they should be cautious when people appeal to their worst instincts, deepest fears, and meanest motives.

    What we need to remind ourselves is that we abandon our values when we try to force them on everyone else.

    Paul McMasters may be contacted at address pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.

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