Sunday, July 8, 2001
Freedom to browseBEYOND THE HUSH of Hawaii's public library bookstacks rumbles a thunderous battle over how to handle the current bestseller -- the Internet.
Defenders of intellectual freedom
and conservatives bent on suppressing
prurient material carry their perennial
clash into cyberspace at
Hawaii's public libraries
By Lee Catterall
The traditionally stalwart defense of intellectual freedom by librarians is pitted against a conservative assault on the transmission of a wide assortment of the rawest pornography through cyberspace and into public libraries.
Virginia Lowell, the state librarian of Hawaii, has devised a system of blocking Internet pornography from children according to their parents' wishes without compromising the freedom of other library patrons by installing computer filters.
"We feel that our policies, procedures and things that we put in place are a much more comprehensive and caring and sensitive means of helping children with the selection of Internet sites than an unfeeling, uncaring, unknowing filtering program," Lowell says.
Kelly M. Rosati, director of the conservative Hawaii Family Forum, maintains that the library's system is fine for the time being. She says, however, that it will fall short of meeting federal requirements set to take effect a year from now. Failing to equip library computers with filters, she says, would be "like letting kids into a dirty bookstore."
This is but the latest chapter in an age-old struggle between those who seek the greatest possible freedom of speech and those who seek to curtail that freedom in the name of decency and public morality.
Librarians once fought against the blacklisting of books dealing with sexual subjects, such as D.H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterly's Lover," or impolitic literature ranging from Mark Twain's controversial "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer" to a "seditious" pamphlet titled "You and Machines," prepared for use in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Today, the battleground has shifted to the Internet.
Both Lowell and Rosati await resolution of court fights over the latest version of a federal law imposing rules on libraries having computers with Internet access. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the first of those laws, the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Congress responded with the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, but courts have prevented that from going into effect also.
Congress' third try, signed into law by President Clinton in December, is the Children's Internet Protection Act. It requires all federally subsidized public and school libraries to install software on their computers to block "visual depictions" of obscenity, child pornography and sexual matter deemed "harmful to minors."
The courts may call strike three against Congress. In a variety of cases, the Supreme Court has ruled that attempts to protect minors should not infringe on the First Amendment rights of adults. As the court lifted a ban on tobacco advertising near schools last month, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor repeated the court's prevailing principle: "Protecting children from harmful materials...does not justify an unnecessarily broad suppression of speech addressed to adults."
Hawaii's public libraries already forbid people of all ages from viewing pornography on its computer terminals. Six patrons -- three adults and three teenagers -- were caught looking at obscene Web sites last year. Five were forced to forfeit the remainder of their scheduled time on the 'Net. One adult, who refused to exit the Internet, was banned from the library for at least six months. The library has the authority to impose these penalties.
Last November, Lowell announced a new service called PACE, for Parents Authorize Cyberspace Entry, to deal with children's access to the Internet. It allows parents to make sure their children are accompanied by a librarian during their journeys into cyberspace.
According to the program, parents may direct library staff to place an electronic "block" on their child's library card. Any "blocked" child trying to sign on to the Internet without a librarian's presence is greeted by a message saying essentially that it is forbidden territory.
Only 300 parents statewide have opted for PACE. Lowell says she believes people generally "don't see the library in the same light as the people who are really concerned about Internet access, are afraid of it and want to put the libraries into a shepherd's role."
Lowell also takes the position that the PACE program moves the library system toward compliance with the new federal law, which is to take effect in July of next year.
"We think the PACE program is electronic blocking," she says. "The block is placed in the software in the PACE program, so that is electronic.
"Our automated system has embedded in the software a series of blocks that can be defined and placed against the patron's record," she says. "The process of creating that block, under the PACE program, is one of those defined blocks in the software."
While Rosati regards PACE as "a step in the right direction," she believes it does not come close to providing what Congress had in mind in directing that pornography be electronically blocked. Indeed, lawsuits filed by the American Library Association and the American
Civil Liberties Union contend that its filtering requirements -- not the kind of "block" used in the PACE program -- amount to unconstitutional "prior restraint," in violation of the First Amendment.
"Filters are anathema to what we as librarians want to accomplish," says Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom. "The best filter is the individual. Every bit of information is not appropriate for every individual, but the best person to make that decision is the individual or, for children, in concert with their parents or guardians." The association's Hawaii chapter strongly supports that position.
Rosati and other supporters of the new law contend that it is needed to protect children.
"This simply says the federal government is not going to subsidize getting hard-core pornography in the libraries," says Bruce Taylor, president of the National Law Center for Children and Families. A library without filters "becomes the peep show section of adult bookstores," he says.
Librarians at the Minneapolis Public Library recently complained to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that exposure to Internet pornography had subjected them to a sexually hostile work environment.
Lowell seethes when asked about the case, which is pending. Part of a librarian's job, she says, is to "monitor people's use of the Internet. That means that there is some probability you are going to see something you don't like. If you don't like that and it's harming your enjoyment of your job, then maybe you'd better be doing something else."
Computer filters are designed to identify Web sites by words or pictures and to block them from the monitor. They have been criticized for "overblocking" by spiking educational sites such as those about breast cancer or even a site about the "Mars explorer," from its three-letter sequence of s-e-x.
"Filters don't work," Lowell says flatly, "and they're an expensive answer to a problem that is better addressed by a series of policies and procedures, and caring, trained librarians watching and helping people access information on the Internet."
Rosati maintains that filters have improved in recent years. "As with anything of this nature, I still think it's probably not 100 percent effective." However, she asks, "Is it better to protect kids from 99 percent of the material that we all agree as a community and, as a matter of public policy, they shouldn't have public access to, or, because it's not 100 percent effective, we say, 'OK, go ahead?' "
Rosati says her organization supports "a full-access computer for the adults and a computer that's restricted for the kids."
Such a restriction is in place at Hawaii's public school libraries, which began subscribing to a filter service called Websense in May 1999.
The San Diego-based company reportedly employs seven people to review new Web sites and block objectionable ones from subscribers. Daily updates are fed electronically into Hawaii's school computers.
Filtered categories targeted by Websense include nudity, graphic depictions or descriptions of sexual activity, promotion of illicit drugs, gambling, crime, weapons and violence. Others are information about computer hacking, chat rooms, militancy or extremism "sponsored by groups advocating anti-government beliefs or action." Still more seek to screen out racism or hate and information or promotion of "non-traditional religions." Sites not falling under those categories can be blocked if they are deemed to be "offensive, grotesque, frightening, lurid material with no redeeming value."
"I think it has been working pretty good for us," K. Kim, the school system's telecom director, says of Websense. However, he remains puzzled about how a Nanakuli High School student might have gained access to sexual images on the Internet in April 2000 and superimposed faces of other students. The parents of one girl so depicted is suing the school system.
"I tried to find that out from the coordinators at Nanakuli High School," Kim says, "but they didn't want to tell me too much. Just reading the paper, it sounds like a student got an attachment with his e-mail, and the attachment had some sort of pornographic materials. The filter cannot catch that."
Lowell says there is a lot more the filter is unable to catch.
"Do you understand that the Internet adds probably 3,000 new Web sites every day, and probably almost as many Web sites change and/or die, go away?" Lowell asks. "If you're not monitoring that whole group, then you're not doing a real job of filtering. Any filtering program that exists today limits access to (constitutionally) protected speech and does not ferret out or blot out the unprotected speech."
In preparing for possible enforcement of the law, Lowell says her staff is "not even going to look strongly" at filters. Instead, she says the library system "would probably be looking at some other form of blocking technology."