Congress, courts clash
over Internet filtering issue
(August 25, 2002)
By John Cockroft
Motion on a computer
screen catches librarian Laura Morgans eye. A patron is viewing
a pornographic MPEG file video on the librarys Internet system.
"I called security
to verify that our administration allows this," Morgan says.
Though potential solutions
vary, many librarians, lawmakers and judges share Morgans
dilemma of guarding against unwanted images while not curtailing
On May 31, a month before
it was to take effect, the Childrens Internet Protection Act
was struck down in federal court. The legislation had been designed
to withhold federal funding from public libraries not using filters.
The U.S. Department of Justice plans a Supreme Court appeal.
Congress had passed the
act to require filters in all public library computers (similar
to those used in public schools) which would block pornographic
sites. The American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties
Union objected, saying such filtering devices block certain appropriate
sites and dont eliminate all unwanted sites.
Local libraries continue
to decide what, if any, restrictions to impose. According to the
National Commission on Library and Information Science, the number
of public libraries using some type of filtering system jumped from
24 percent in 2000 to 43 percent in 2001.
But many libraries still
allow unlimited access to all ages. Morgan, 41, a librarian for
13 years in the Visual and Performing Arts Division at the Harold
Library Center in Chicago, isnt satisfied with her administrations
position to allow access for all.
Morgan to leave her position because of her objections. Instead,
she became more vocal, appearing before Congress and on national
television to promote Internet filtering. "Many of my co-workers
are quietly supportive," she says.
Many librarians, fearing
free speech activists, feel intimidated to stand up against what
they consider a hostile work environment where patrons surf for
porn. Few are as bold as Heidi Borton, 52. After a year and a half
of protesting Internet porn and sacrificing promotions and her reputation,
Borton left Woodinville Public Library near Seattle after Web access
turned her library into what she calls a tax-financed peep show.
are allowed to flourish in libraries with full Internet access,"
Borton says. "My Christian convictions wouldnt allow
me to continue to work in a place where children were allowed to
Morgan also says she
has seen adult males surfing for porn in the library to deliberately
expose it to female library staff and patrons, including children.
a 34-year-old pastors wife in Camano Island, Wash., didnt
even know Internet pornography existed two years ago. "I was
waiting in line at the local library with my 9-year-old son and
9-year-old nephew when the boys pointed to a computer screen with
naked women on it," she says. "A teenage boy was at the
The librarian told Costantino
that such images were permitted. Months of trying to get the library
to install filters proved fruitless. "We homeschool our three
children and depended on library books," Costantino says. "Now
I wont take my kids there anymore."
An ALA executive summary
published by Jenner & Block, a Chicago-based law firm, warns
that lawsuits are more likely to be filed over filtering rather
than not using filters. "We love children and want to protect
them, but feel the use of filters that block constitutionally protected
speech isnt the way to go," former ALA president John
W. Berry told PE Report.
Berry, 55, offers several
solutions to protecting children, including "smart cards"
that allow degrees of Internet access predetermined by a parent.
He also suggests recessed monitors, privacy screens seen only from
a direct viewpoint or placing screens within eyeshot of library
staff members who can monitor inappropriate activity.
However, the ALA summary
claims smart cards could "seriously compromise" childrens
First Amendment rights, stating, "Children possess certain
constitutional rights independent of their parents."
The summary further states
that allowing librarians to monitor Internet activity "invites
arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement contrary to the librarys
mission and First Amendment guarantees."
What about child pornography?
"The ALA is an educational
enterprise with no law enforcement capabilities," Berry says.
Which leaves Morgan and other librarians with little ammunition
to combat child pornography incidents.
In February, Morgan found
child pornography on a vacated screen. She told administrators,
who said law enforcement isnt their job.
But Morgan maintains
library pornography infringes on the rights of many. "As a
mother, I am concerned for my children," Morgan says. "As
a woman, its a sexual harassment issue to be subjected to
viewing pornography, and as a citizen, it is disturbing to find
child pornography that goes unprosecuted."
Bruce Taylor, 51, president
of the National Law Center for Children and Families in Fairfax,
Va., says librarians shouldnt have the responsibility of monitoring
supervise their children kids arent safe alone in libraries,"
he says. "Congress isnt going to solve this problem.
Parents can get libraries to filter voluntarily, and local and state
law enforcement can enforce existing obscenity laws."
On the federal level,
Taylor says prosecutors are actively enforcing obscenity laws at
the urging of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.
"An estimated nine
of 10 children ages 8 to 16 have been exposed to obscene material
on the Internet," Ashcroft told attendees at the Federal Prosecutors
Symposium on Obscenity June 6 in Columbia, S.C. "Child molesters
often use obscene material to seduce their prey. Pedophiles use
the Internet to distribute obscenity, engage in sexually explicit
conversations with children and seek potential victims in chat rooms."
But even with millions
invested in filtering software, Jack Samad, vice president for the
National Coalition for the Protection of Families and Children in
Cincinnati, says pornographers technology is more advanced.
"The porn industry has won the day," says Samad, 49. "I
dont see this fight as winnable, either by legislation or
regulation." However, Samad says filters and terminal segregation,
though not 100 percent secure, are far better than nothing.
Meanwhile, opinions remain
divided over the effectiveness of filtering. "For now, none
of them work because the very architecture of the Internet makes
it difficult to control," Berry says.
"Many filters are
effective in blocking the vast majority of the porn with a relatively
small percentage of misblocks," Morgan says.
"We should be willing
to be inconvenienced for the security of our youth," Samad