Library Filtering Controversy Continues

OLYMPIA, Wash. — To filter or not to filter? That is the question, when it comes to public libraries.

Six years ago this Tuesday, the Supreme Court, hearing The United States v. the American Library Association, ruled that public libraries must install filtering software on their computers to protect minors from viewing pornography.

But that ruling continues to be debated and contested all over the nation: Is viewing porn in a public library a public indecency or a First Amendment free-speech right?

While both the American Library Association and the Federal Communications Commission support filtering computers that are used by minors, the issue of adults viewing porn in a public place where children are present has become something of a gray area, notes The Epoch Times.

Community and regional standards appear to apply. In Shelby Township, Mich., a public librarian said, “Ours is a family-friendly library for everyone’s enjoyment. As soon as we see someone looking at an inappropriate website, we will immediately shut off the computer."

The Shelby Township Library records the user's card number and gives a verbal warning as to why the computer was shut down. After three such warnings, computer privileges are revoked and the user must appeal for reinstatement.

Similar actions elsewhere have resulted in court cases. In Washington, the state Supreme Court will hear Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District, in which patrons are suing the library for refusing to disable a computer's Internet filter. 

The American Civil Liberties Union is backing the plaintiffs, but the issue isn't over porn. The blocked sites include, and, none of which is considered obscene.

"Several libraries are really looking at it close and holding their breath,” NCRL Director Dean Marney told Wenatchee World.

"The state librarian is going to be there. How many times does a library get to the Supreme Court level?"

Before the 2003 federal ruling, the American Library Association reported more than 50 percent of libraries with Internet access did not have any filtering in place. Internet filters are required by the Children’s Internet Protection Act in order for schools and public libraries to qualify for federal funding.

The act states, "Schools and libraries subject to CIPA may not receive the discounts ... unless they certify that they have an Internet safety policy and technology protection measures in place. An Internet safety policy must include technology protection measures to block or filter Internet access to pictures that are: (a) are obscene, (b) child pornography, or (c) harmful to minors (for computers that are accessed by minors).

So the issue is, should computers not accessed by minors — some libraries offer separate computer areas for children and adults — be filtered at all?

In Washington, the ACLU is seeking a court order directing the state's libraries to disable the Internet filter at the request of adults.

Marney said the NCRL will unblock certain websites. Although the request process is not instant, it takes less than a full day.

"What we’re saying is you’ve got to consider the rights of kids to be protected in a safe environment and the right of employees to work in a non-hostile work environment,” Marney said.

KEPR-TV reports that in the Washington town of Kennewick parents have lobbied for greater restrictions, but the Mid-Columbia Library Board has drawn a line in the sand with a statement that said, "The board feels that current Internet usage and filtering policies are sound and do not require formal action by the board."

As it stands, the area's libraries do not allow porn to be viewed on any computers; parents want further child protection in blocking websites.

In Las Vegas, America's adult playground, KTNV-TV said the public library system filters children's computers, but not those used by adults. However, proper conduct is expected.

"We don't monitor content, but we do monitor behavior quite stringently. We expect good manners in the library," the library district's Public Services Director Marie Cuglietta told the TV station.

As reported by, the library system in San Jose, Calif., recently rejected calls for porn filters on all library computers.

So who's right here? The issue is hardly without its shades of gray.

While adults should certainly be able to view any content they wish, parents should not have to worry about their children seeing age-inappropriate material on computer screens in public spaces.

First Amendment attorneys and free-speech hardliners argue that free speech is free speech, period, and that includes the right to view whatever one wishes on publicly funded library computers. But tell that to a parent who walks by with a child — a child clearly being supervised — when an adult is looking at graphic adult content in plain sight of other patrons.

One solution that's been suggested is creating private areas for adult computer use, though some officials argue it would be costly and potentially create other problems. Others say it's simply a matter of enforcing rules of acceptable public conduct.

“Libraries should not have to filter,” Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection CEO Joan Irvine told “Adults should be responsible and not view adult content where children might see it. It is no different than what a responsible adult should do in their home. We all need to work together in order to make sure adult content is restricted to its intended audience: adults only!”

And the debate rages on.

For more on what's clearly a complex issue, visit Library Spot and see also numerous briefs and papers on the subject here.