Internet users work at computers at the Philadelphia Public Library. In… (Dan Loh / AP Photo )
When a homeless man was accused of fondling himself in the Laguna Beach public library, the ensuing outcry was less about the alleged behavior than about the pornography the man was viewing on the Internet at the time.
Some people had never realized before the November incident that libraries, originally intended as great institutions of public edification through books, could be used these days as sources for viewing porn. Others were all too aware of the issue because they had seen, in this library and others, library computers regularly used for decidedly unlofty pursuits, even when there were children around who could easily see the screens.
Librarians in Laguna Beach and at most other libraries have insisted that they are obliged to provide Internet access to pornography as a matter of their clients' free-speech rights; limiting or prohibiting access to certain kinds of information amounts to censorship, in their eyes. The reality is more complicated, though.
Despite what the librarians say, libraries already restrict access to certain kinds of print material by using their scant financial resources to purchase some books and magazines rather than others. Libraries are far more likely to have copies of the New Yorker on the periodical shelves than copies of Hustler. True, Internet access to porn sites doesn't cost a library more than access to Wikipedia, but both involve making judgments about the relative worth of some materials over others.
The U.S. Supreme Court's take on this issue is mixed. In 2003, the court upheld a law requiring libraries that received certain forms of federal funding to filter out pornography so that minors couldn't view it. Four members of the court signed on to an opinion saying that libraries had no 1st Amendment obligation to provide access to pornography at all.
"To fulfill their traditional missions of facilitating learning and cultural enrichment, public libraries must have broad discretion to decide what material to provide to their patrons," the plurality opinion said. "…The decisions by most libraries to exclude pornography from their print collections are not subjected to heightened scrutiny; it would make little sense to treat libraries' judgments to block online pornography any differently."
In the end, the interpretation adopted by the court was that the online filters did not violate the 1st Amendment, as long as they were temporarily disabled for adults who requested access.
The Supreme Court decision had limited effect on libraries because many of them do without the federal funds in question. As a result, individual libraries or library systems have been deciding this issue of warring concerns largely on their own. And although we sympathize with the complexity and difficulty of the choices they make, too often library policies have protected the freedom of patrons to view pornographic websites without paying enough attention to the needs of other patrons, who should be able to use the library without having to worry about what they or their children might glimpse on a computer screen. Free expression is one of this society's core values, but not its only value.
Librarians also make a compelling argument: The definition of pornography has changed over the years, and when government makes that determination for individuals, it's at the edge of censorship. D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was once widely banned as smut. The difference between obscenity and valid information can be a subtle one — so much so that software filters meant to keep people from viewing porn tend to block sites that inform women about breast cancer or provide emotional support to gay teens who have been bullied at school.
According to the American Library Assn., libraries do not have an obligation to allow the viewing of sexual content that is not considered protected speech. That includes child pornography and the more amorphous category of obscenity — prurient sexual material that has no redeeming social or artistic value.
Librarians have the authority, a spokeswoman for the association said, to tap patrons on the shoulder when they are viewing such content and tell them to take the material down, or to leave the library altogether if they persist in bringing up obscene imagery.
But few librarians, trained in a tradition of defending against censorship, feel comfortable intervening — especially because definitions of obscenity can be unclear and differ markedly according to local community standards — and the library association generally recommends that librarians not get involved.