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Next decency fight: libraries

Despite the Supreme Court's ruling, public libraries will continue to face local pressure to shield children from material on the Net.

Antipornography advocates used to protest objectional material that was circulating in libraries by burning books. In the digital age, they seek to ban access to Internet content instead.

Despite today's Supreme Court rejection of the Communications Decency Act, public libraries will continue to face local pressure to shield children from sexual material on the Net.

President Clinton's promise to wire the nation's public education system by the year 2000 only intensifies the challenge that libraries face as they try to balance First Amendment rights with community standards that restrict online material deemed "obscene," "harmful to minors," or "indecent."

Debates already are raging in Ohio, Boston, Michigan, Florida, and California over proposed laws to install filtering software on library computers with Internet connections. Proponents of Net blocking say children shouldn't be exposed to sexual sites, especially in publicly funded institutions.

"If libraries allow access to porn, even for adults, then the public will be subsidizing a peep-show booth," said Robert Peters, president of Morality in Media, which fought to uphold the CDA.

"We don't think libraries would have to police the material, but if people are using the library computers to access obscene material or child pornography, libraries should certainly block access to those sites."

But opponents of such tactics say the restrictions often censor adults from their right to freely surf the Net. Filtering software also has been criticized for excluding sites that deal with important social topics: homosexuality, women's issues, human rights, and prisons.

"Censorship in any venue is a danger to liberty. Though the technology is different, the arguments are the same," said Christine Link, executive director of the Ohio American Civil Liberties Union office.

In Ohio, the ACLU is fighting a provision that is buried in both the Senate and House versions of the state's 1998 budget legislation. The bills would either require or suggest that the state's 250 public libraries filter "obscene" and "illegal" sites.

The final language is still being negotiated and is expected to be put to a vote by the end of this month.

Like those who argued against the CDA, libraries say that parents, not the government, should be responsible for what their children see online.

But in February, Boston mayor Thomas Menino took the decision into his own hands.

Acting on rumors that wide-eyed youths were peeking at porn in Boston libraries, Menino ordered that blocking software be installed on 200 public computers. Some City Council members and free-speech advocates protested, saying Menino had acted too hastily.

Since then, the two sides have struck a compromise. Youths who have parental permission will be able surf without restriction in Boston, but Net access in the children's sections will still block sites containing "partial nudity" and "sex acts."

Similar cases have sprouted throughout the country, often with inconclusive results. In Gilroy, California, antiporn activists wanted the Santa Clara County district attorney to file charges against the library on grounds that children had access to material that was deemed harmful to minors under current law. But no charges were filed because the DA had no identified victims.

In another example, the Florida chapter of the ACLU may soon file a First Amendment lawsuit against the Orange County Library System in that state because it filters all Net access.

"You can't subject adults to library content that is only suitable for children," said Andy Kayton, legal director for the ACLU of Florida. "What the Orange County Library System is doing runs contrary to what libraries are supposed to do: provide the community with the widest range of resources possible."

Still, libraries find themselves caught in a dilemma because the American Library Association, a policy-making and lobbying group for libraries, argued before the Supreme Court that blocking technology was less restrictive than government intervention and, therefore, the lesser of two evils.

"Now we're stuck in the middle because of what we argued in court," said Deborah Liebow, assistant director for the ALA's office for intellectual freedom. "But we still don?t think that current blocking software is effective in a public institution such as the library. It's only a good solution for home use because a parent can choose at their end what they want to block."

The association is also concerned that the current trend will make librarians liable if a minor manages to get past blocking software.

The ALA has released guidelines to help its members curtail some sticky situations. It also promised to publish a detailed policy on the use of blocking software in public libraries after the CDA ruling.

Current policy calls for libraries to remind parents that they are responsible for their children's access to the Internet. The plan also recommends educating library staff, governing bodies, community leaders, and patrons about the advantages of using the Net.

But in states such as Virginia, the ALA is still facing Internet laws that could censor libraries or their staff's surfing privileges. "It's possible that some of these state statutes will be upheld and libraries will have to deal with that," Liebow added.

Now the ALA is looking to President Clinton for assurance that he will not sign another CDA-like law.

"We want the White House to come out and recognize the First Amendment perimeters of this medium, that it can't be regulated because much of the material is coming from outside of the United States," Liebow said. "Also, these laws force librarians to make content decisions, which the courts have routinely said they can't."

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