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Libraries struggle with issue of Internet access and porn

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post said the American Civil Liberties Union had sued the North Central Regional Library district, based in Wenatchee, Wash., for not offering access to online pornography. The ACLU says that its case was not about pornography but was aimed at overly broad Internet filters that blocked access to legitimate research and political activity.

Libraries in Washington state are continuing to struggle with the issue of Internet access and pornography.

In Seattle, the public library system is holding fast to unrestricted online access to adults despite complaints about men watching pornography in very public settings. In Wenatchee, the North Central Regional Library is defending itself in a years-old lawsuit that says it has gone too far in its attempt to block porn and instead censors legitimate access for research, art and political activism.

The lawsuit in Wenatchee by the American Civil Liberties Union alleges that the library district improperly censors Internet access in an overbroad way. The ACLU suit was brought in 2006 “on behalf of a college student who was prevented from researching for a paper on youth tobacco use, an artist who couldn't look at sites of art galleries and artwork, a political group whose publication ‘Women and Guns’ was blocked, and a man who wanted to update his MySpace page,” the nonprofit advocacy group said in a statement.

The district successfully defended its Internet filtering policy in the state Supreme Court two years ago, but the case is now in a federal court.

Any idea that the lawsuit is aimed at allowing the viewing of pornography is flat-out wrong, the ACLU says.

“There’s nothing in the lawsuit that says we’re suing because of lack of access to pornography,” said Steve Gosset, director of media relations at the Washington, D.C.-based office of the ACLU. “It had nothing to do with pornography.”

Instead, Gosset said, the library’s computer filter “cuts off access to lots of different useful materials that are entirely legal.”

“If something is allowed under law, you have access to it,” he said. “The library should not be the censor.”

But the filters do block pornography, and library officials said that serves the district’s mission to promote reading and lifelong learning.

"We believe having pornography in public places hurts our ability to accomplish our mission," Dan Howard, the library’s director of public services, told NBC station KING 5 in Seattle.

"We are a publicly funded institution," Library Director Dean Marney said in a statement published on the district website. "It is crazy to think that we should be required to use tax dollars to allow open access to Internet pornography or to become illegal casinos."

The North Central Regional Library district, which represents 28 libraries in the central part of Washington, admits its policy puts it in the minority among the state's libraries.

The other end of the spectrum is represented in the Seattle controversy.

A mother with her two children said they saw a man watching what she described as hard-core porn and asked the librarian to act, but was refused. She then wrote to the library and contacted the media, according to SeattlePI.com. Despite the complaint, the Seattle Public Library held fast to its policy of unrestricted online access for adults, SeattlePI.com reported.

SeattlePI.com said the King County Library System has a similar policy: It only filters kids' access on computers. The American Library Association endorses the same stance.

"Sometimes, in a library, you're going to see information that's going to make you uncomfortable," Barbara Jones, director of the association's intellectual freedom office, told radio station KUOW Wednesday.

 

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