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Los Angeles libraries grapple with online pornography

After a recent outcry about online pornography at a Chinatown branch library, Los Angeles has been working to protect bystanders while not infringing on computer users' 1st Amendment rights.

April 13, 2011|By Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times

It was a rainy Tuesday afternoon in late December, and the Chinatown Branch Library was buzzing. While a line of children waited to check out books, other patrons surfed the Internet at a bank of computers nearby.

At one computer, a man sat watching pornography. And parents complained.

Every day adults across the city use library computers to do research, read news, watch YouTube videos and apply for jobs. And 1st Amendment protections give them the right to also access some pornography, city officials say.

Regular library patrons say it is not uncommon.

In the months since the Dec. 28 incident, which sparked outcry in Chinatown, officials have been mulling over ways to protect patrons from the sometimes explicit content on other people's screens while also protecting free expression.

At a Los Angeles City Council committee meeting Tuesday, city librarian Martin Gomez said making computer use as private as possible is the best solution.

Gomez said all of the nearly 3,000 computers in the L.A. Public Library system are outfitted with screens that make it hard for bystanders to see the content, and librarians are working to reorient terminals so screens are less visible.

He said that library officials considered installing an Internet filter that would keep out obscene websites but that licensing fees are costly and the system is imperfect.

The filters block websites with certain keywords and phrases deemed obscene. That means, for example, that they could keep patrons from accessing websites about breast cancer, Gomez said.

A 2003 Supreme Court decision said public libraries that receive federal money have the authority to install filters that block pornography and other obscene material that may be harmful to children until a patron asks for it to be unblocked.

Dan Kleinman, who runs the website SafeLibraries.org, said in a letter to city officials that such filters are necessary to keep library visitors safe. Privacy screens aren't enough, he said.

In an interview, Kleinman, who lives in New Jersey, pointed out that libraries already have book selection policies and should have similar guidelines that determine what people can view online.

Deputy City Atty. Basia Jankowski said that although the city has the legal right to install filters, the question of what to filter is complicated.

"It's a really gray issue because it's really difficult to define what is obscenity," she said. "I know some people who might consider scenes in a rated-R movie obscene."

She pointed out that the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on wholesale blocking of Internet pornography at public libraries.

"A lot of this has not been decided," she said.

Current L.A. Public Library policy grants visitors unfettered Internet access unless a person is viewing child pornography or tries to engage other people in viewing pornography. In those cases, police may be called.

In Chinatown, library branch manager Shan Liang said she had not heard any complaints about pornography since her aides reoriented the computers.

The initial incident made waves in the Chinese American community and was covered by several local Chinese newspapers. Derek Ma, president of the L.A. County branch of the National Chinese Welfare Council, organized a meeting with library officials shortly afterward.

When librarians told community members that the library has a policy of not filtering Internet access, Ma said he and the others accepted it. In China, Internet access to websites with political content is often limited.

Ma recommended the reorientation of the computers and is happy with the result.

"Parents, they were afraid to continue to bring their kids to the libraries," he said. "This is better."

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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