Winning a partial victory against state-ordered Net censorship, Ohio libraries will earn the right to decide locally how to address children's access to online porn if a proposed law is passed.
The Ohio Senate on Friday rewrote a provision buried in the state's 1998 budget bill that would have required 250 public libraries to filter "obscene" and "illegal" sites. Under the current version of the bill, libraries still will have to develop a Net access policy that addresses such material, but they won't have to use blocking software.
Antiporn activists pushed the statute, saying children needed protection from online smut. Proponents of filtered Net access at public libraries have popped up nationwide, from Boston to Gilroy, California. Just last Friday the City Council in Warren, Michigan, voted to ban patrons from downloading anything deemed "sexually explicit."
Librarians in Ohio charged that the original condition violated the right to free speech. Still, the state's data repositories could be in a pinch if the bill is changed again because it also allocates $1 million to improve the Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN)--the online access provider for most branches.
OPLIN board members who fought against the censorship provision were pleased with the Senate's modification, but the local chapter of the Amercian Civil Liberties Union is still leery.
"It's not over yet," said Joan Englund, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio. "The current language seems to put local libraries in charge of determining whether there will be Internet censorship or not, but it's not clear what the final language is going to look like."
The ACLU will also be watching how local libraries implement their policies. "It has been our position all along that censorship is prohibited by the First Amendment. Certain information could still be censored from adult patrons," Englund added.
Most Ohio libraries already have rules about what material shouldn't be seen using public computers, said Steve Wood, who is an OPLIN board member and director of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library.
"Every community's needs are different. If you impose a set of values at the state level, people are going to be unhappy," Wood said. "I do not believe blocking software is the best solution, and I don't think my community does either."
Blocking software is not always fool-proof, free speech advocates say, because some versions bar sites with information about safe sex, reproduction, homosexuality, or human rights.
Wood's branch policy states: "The library has a policy of open access to all parts of its collections, including access to the Internet. Usage is not restricted by age (supervision is the parent's responsibility), is not prioritized by information need (everyone's information need is important to him or her), and is not restricted by residency."
The policy falls in line with the ACLU and American Library Association's theories about library Net service.
Computer monitor privacy screens were also installed in the branch. Librarians are not supposed to oversee anyone's Net surfing, but to respond to complaints of alleged misconduct on an individual basis.
For example, if someone complains that an adult is looking at something that might not be appropriate for minors, he or she may be asked to move to a more private work station, Wood said.
But not all libraries use these tactics. The branch in Westerville, Ohio, uses the Library Channel instead.
Using the software, the library picks those sites that it wants to be accessible from computers in its children's section. Kids can't type in Web addresses to travel elsewhere on the Net.
The software doesn't sit well with all in Ohio, however. One resident said the software is installed on all computers, not just kiddie terminals, which restricts adult access too.
Westerville library director Don Barlow could not be immediately reached for comment.