To Deschutes Public Library System Director Michael Gaston, it almost seemed that federal judges in Philadelphia had been looking over local shoulders when they wrote an opinion issued Friday, striking down a federal law requiring libraries to shield minors from pornographic or “harmful” material on the Internet.
“It’s almost like they are talking about us,” Gaston said – not in the court’s finding that the filtering software mandated by the “Children’s Internet Protection Act” blocks access, in the ruling’s words, “to substantial amounts of constitutionally protected speech whose suppression serves no legitimate government interest,” but in what it said next:
“Moreover, less restrictive alternatives exist that further the government’s legitimate interest in preventing the dissemination of obscenity, child pornography, and material harmful to minors, and in preventing patrons from being unwillingly exposed to patently offensive, sexually explicit content,” the court found (the full ruling can be found at http://www.paed.uscourts.gov/documents/opinions/02D0415P.HTM ).
“To prevent patrons from accessing visual depictions that are obscene and child pornography, public libraries may enforce Internet use policies that make clear to patrons that the library’s Internet terminals may not be used to access illegal speech,” the court said. “Libraries may then impose penalties on patrons who violate these policies, ranging from a warning to notification of law enforcement, in the appropriate case.”
“Less restrictive alternatives to filtering that further libraries’ interest in preventing minors from exposure to visual depictions that are harmful to minors include requiring parental consent to or presence during unfiltered access, or restricting minors’ unfiltered access to terminals within view of library staff,” the appeals court held. “Finally, optional filtering, privacy screens, recessed monitors, and placement of unfiltered Internet terminals outside of sight-lines provide less restrictive alternatives for libraries to prevent patrons from being unwillingly exposed to sexually explicit content on the Internet.”
Almost two years ago, and not without quite a bit of pre-decision controversy, the Deschutes Public Library System (http://www.dpls.lib.or.us) went to a system that requires library patrons to register to access the libraries’ Internet stations, except those designated in the younger children’s area of the largest, Bend library, where content is always filtered. For older children, a form must be signed by parents which outlines the options and allows them to choose filtered or unfiltered access for their child.
Deschutes libraries followed legal advice for `least restrictive, legal alternative’
“All along, that was the legal advice we got, to use the least restrictive, legal alternative,” Gaston said. “Filters are offered as a choice for families to use for their own children, Internet training courses, enforcement of Internet use policies, placement of terminals – it (the ruling) is like a list of things we do in our policy.”
Back in the fall of 2000, as the new policy went into effect, Gaston noted that the software is unpredictable and often blocks valuable, pertinent information, while not always blocking sexually graphic material. “Our goal is to provide a safe and healthy environment for our patrons,” Gaston said at the time. And there haven’t been headlines or major issues in the media about local libraries ever since.
“They (the court) are saying that public libraries are a public forum, and as such, we have to be careful about exercising control,” the library director said Friday said. “We have to have valid reasons, that we have to defend, for restricting free speech. And as the court cases are getting more clear, we took care of the problem with the least restrictive method.”
“You shouldn’t have to go into a public library and see sexually explicit material that’s easily visible on (computer) screens,” Gaston said, adding that the so-called “tap on the shoulder” policy used by many libraries has worked – and fit in with policies that predate the Internet.
“If you walked into the Bend library, stood on a table with a bunch of Playboy centerfolds and said, `Look here! Look here!’ there’s no question, we would have tossed you,” he said. “There’s nothing in our policies to say we can’t stop sexual harassment.”
Director says library Net-use complaints `so rare,’ he can’t remember last one
The local libraries’ policy may not be perfect, but “it comes close,” Gaston said. “It’s defused the problem. It’s so rare that I get a complaint, I can’t remember the last one I had.”
Gaston cited two reasons for that: “One, when a kid has to get a parent to sign off on (their Internet access), that tells the kid there are consequences. If a child is having behavior problems, I see no problem in requiring filtered access.”
Along with what type of Internet access, the log-on system was set up to limit access in another way: the clock. There are about 70 Internet terminals in the five system branches, and there’s always more demand than available PCs, so the use is limited to one-hour periods.
The other reason cited by Gaston has more to do with human nature and psychology than library reality.
“I think, when you log on, you think that people are monitoring you – (and) we’re not,” Gaston assured.
“We would not have changed our policy, no matter what the (court) decision was, because it’s working so well, and reduced our workload” as well, he added.
Children’s library PCs have mandatory blocking, for practical reasons
The ruling was expedited so it would come out in time for about 5,000 public libraries that receive federal “e-rate” funding to subsidize their Net connections. Under the struck-down act called CIPA – which the federal government is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court – libraries were required to decide whether to install filters by July 1, or forgo funding for the coming fiscal year.
Gaston said the Deschutes system didn’t get any “e-rate” funds this year, but might receive $14,000 to $16,000 next year. But he noted, “That’s out of a $6 million” budget. “We installed a system that cost us $30,000, $40,000 to make it work, so there’s no way we are going to turn around and quit using it for that small amount of money.”
The library official said Bend is the only library large enough to have terminals dedicated to young children, and that the reason those sites are permanently filtered is as practical as philosophical: “It wasn’t logical to ask a young child to remember their bar code number and PIN number to log in. It just wasn’t practical to apply the parent choice thing. We felt we had to make filters available to the very young children.”
For older children, the form parents must fill out explains the issue and “tells parents, `It’s your choice,’” Gaston said. “If you have any concern about your children’s behavior, you might want to go filtered, but he or she might not get access to the sites they need to. But if you have confidence in your child, it leaves it up to them (the parents). If I had a child with a lot of behavior problems I might put them on the filter, but if they were in high school on the honor roll, I’d have no problems at all” with unfiltered access.
“If I walk through the library and see a young child is on a pornographic site, I’d have absolutely no problem logging off that terminal, taking them aside and talking with them about what’s appropriate and non-appropriate in a public setting,” Gaston said, adding that the problem happens “extremely rarely.”
“I have no more problem doing that then if a child was sliding down a banister and threatening to fall off the banister,” he said. “If a child is doing something not safe for them or unhealthy, I’m going to intervene. But what we don’t want to do is thought control.”
’The last thing we want to do in America is censor controversial speech’
In researching filter software, Gaston said they asked the manufacturers what’s on their banned-site lists. “They won’t tell you – it’s a corporate secret,” he said. “They may have a problem with homosexuals. It’s people taking control, nameless corporations – who knows who’s in the back room, making these decisions? That’s the scary part.”
“Whether it’s based on specific sites or keyword searching, a lot of controversial speech is being censored” by software filters, Gaston said. “And the last thing we want to do in America is censor controversial speech. The whole idea of democracy … is to have unpopular points of view expressed.”
So what else is going on at the libraries, which have been almost completely quiet, in terms of media controversy, since becoming independent, with their own taxpayer funding source, three years ago? Things just keep getting busier, Gaston said, as the circulation has grown from 700,000 items three years ago to 1.2 million this year. And that’s a happy bucking of a national trend.
“Most libraries’ circulation is flat the last five years,” Gaston said. “We have made dramatic improvements in service the last four years. The biggest challenge is growth in usage, and we don’t see that stopping.”
“We cannot anticipate being able to add staff at the rate library usage is increasing,” he said, so “a lot of the focus over the next year or two is going to be on automating” some parts of the system. Indeed, Bend library users already are trying out a new device that allows someone to check out their own books, tapes or other materials. Gaston said that is “going to go big time” in all the branches soon.
“The new equipment is wonderful,” he said – not just in freeing up staff members’ time for helping patrons, but in reducing repetitive-motion injuries at the checkout line.
Library system may partner with schools for Eastside branch targeting young adults
While there’s been some squabbling in Sisters over when and where to put a new, larger branch building, there’s also discussion in Bend about the need, sooner rather than later, for a second city branch, likely on the city’s Eastside. And it may have it’s own unique twist or two.
“We’re in the process of forming a joint study committee with the Bend-La Pine School District on an Eastside (branch),” Gaston said. “I’ve been talking with (Superintendent) Doug Nelson. We want to focus on young adults – the hardest group in terms of literacy, literature and a love of reading is older teens. We want to design a branch library that’s a magnet with older teens. We’re talking a year or two (out).”
But as for Friday’s court ruling on Internet filters, Gaston called it “completely consistent with legal opinions” the libraries based their policy on.
About half of the nation’s public libraries use Internet filters, according to a recent survey. Of those, almost all filter children’s terminals, while about half also filter adult PCs.
This marks the third time the Philadelphia court has rejected an effort by Congress to shield children from Internet porn.
There’s little doubt that lawmakers will keep trying, but Gaston imagined another scenario: “They might just wake up one day and find out that the local library boards are taking care of it – as they should be.”