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Libraries resist censorship

The American Library Association releases loose guidelines to help its members ward off censorship--for now.

The American Library Association today released loose guidelines to help its members resist demands that they filter Net access for kids--for now.

The ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom drafted the guidelines, which will help its members counter recent moves to require filtering software on public Net stations in places such as in Boston and Ohio. However, the group decided to wait for the Supreme Court to rule on the Communications Decency Act in June before publishing an official policy on the use of blocking software in public libraries.

"We though it was important to wait, because until the court issues its decision, we don't know what the future landscape for libraries will be," said Cynthia Robinson, associate director for the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

Proponents say government mandates for blocking software could protect kids in libraries from pornography, drugs, and violence on the Net. But the programs are also know to block sites about sex education, AIDS, homosexuality, rape, and human rights.

The ALA policy calls for libraries to remind parents that they are responsible for where their kids surf on the Net. The plan also recommends educating library staff, governing bodies, community leaders, and patrons about the advantages of using the Net.

The organization also tells librarians to implement a written policy on the use of Net that are "in keeping with your library's mission and policies on access to library materials."

Although blocking software not mentioned, the draft does contain one slightly technological solution: "Use privacy screens or arrange Internet terminals away from public view to protect the confidentiality of users and avoid offending other users who might not agree with another [person's] viewing choice."

Recent campaigns in Ohio and Boston call for putting blocking software on computers in the nation's data repositories before the Supreme Court decides whether the CDA is constitutional. The federal law is not enforceable now, but would make it a felony to transmit indecent material over the Net to people under age 18.

Still, computers in Ohio's 250 public libraries could soon be strapped with censoring software--a provision buried in the state's 1998 budget bill. As the bill moves toward passage, a section that allocates $1 million for the Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN) also requires libraries to filter "obscene" and "illegal" sites on the Net using blocking software.

In February Boston Mayor Thomas Menino clamped down on kids' surfing privileges by ordering that blocking software be put on the city's 200 computers designated for use by children.

After a run-in with the local American Civil Liberties Union office, however, libraries there will now have unfiltered access to the Net. But computers in children's sections will block sites containing "partial nudity" and "sex acts."

Boston children who have parental permission will be able surf without restriction. This compromise is troublesome, the ALA's Robinson said, making it seem unlikely that a similar rule will make the organization's final rules on blocking software.

"The problem with requiring parental permission is that it forces the library to monitor the kids, and not fulfill their other responsibilities," Robinson said. "We think that parents should really spend some time with their children discussing what they think is appropriate. If parents have concerns, they really need to be addressed at home--not at the library."