MINORS’ ACCESS TO PORNOGRAPHY ON THE INTERNET THROUGH PUBLIC LIBRARY AND SCHOOL COMPUTERS
BY ROBERT PETERS
PRESIDENT OF MORALITY IN MEDIA
These remarks were given at a forum sponsored by New York City Councilman James S. Oddo, at the Lane Theater, Staten Island, NY, on September 23, 1999.
Good librarians have a difficult job. On the one hand, they must be responsive to the needs and desires of the communities they serve. On the other hand, they cannot be expected to please everyone in the community all of the time. A good librarian knows when to please and when to fight.
But one thing is certain, librarians have historically exercised discretion in their selection of materials for inclusion in local libraries. They have done so both because of economic restraints and
because of content considerations. To my knowledge, no public library has a large, prominent selection of anti-semitic or racist materials in order to encourage the public to read.
Nor, to my knowledge, has any library acquired a generous selection of videos, magazines and paperback books from local “adult bookstores.” Such materials have no serious artistic, literary,
political or scientific value, would be deeply offensive to the large majority of citizens, and can be harmful to both adults and children. They would also be a waste of tax dollars.
Now, along comes the Internet. Anyone who knows anything about the Internet knows that it has great potential to benefit and enrich human life. Anyone who knows anything about the Internet also knows that it has great potential to cause incalculable harm to nations, businesses and individuals, adults and children.
Why then, do most public libraries refuse to use screening technology to block minors’ access to pornography?
First and foremost is the LIBRARY BILL OF RIGHTS of the ALA, which was adopted in 1948. I received a copy of it from the Brooklyn Library in the 1980s. That copy states, in part:
A PERSON’S RIGHT TO USE A LIBRARY SHOULD NOT BE DENIED OR ABRIDGED BECAUSE OF…AGE….
What this has been interpreted to mean is that if a parent peruses or checks out a book or video containing prurient passages or scenes which depict or describe in a patently offensive manner hardcore sex acts, so can the children.
When I was a child, this “Library Bill of Rights” provision made little difference, even if a local librarian was foolish enough to blindly apply it. Back then, most mainstream publishers had standards, videos hadn’t been invented and bona fide sex education materials differed significantly from porn. And back then, to access the “worst stuff” in the library would often have required an ability to read and do research. At least younger children were protected.
Today, of course, things are different. The quantity of sexually explicit, often pornographic material within the four walls of public libraries has increased immeasurably and much more of it is pictorial. In some cases, it is even prominently displayed so that an ability to do research is not needed.
Most libraries also now provide unrestricted access to the Internet, which offers – free of charge – hardcore pornographic materials, some of which are so depraved you won’t even find them sold
in “adult” book and video stores.
And minors do access porn on the Internet. A Yankelovich Partners poll published in the May 10, 1999 issue of lime found that 44% of teen Internet users had seen web sites that “are X-rated or carry sexual content.” Another Yankelovich Partners poll released this month found that 25 percent of teen Internet users said they went to “X-rated” sex sites (Rite Ciolli, “Teens Unseemly Web Visits,” Newsday, 917199). Among teens with lower grades (C-F) or poor school attendance, the percentage rose to 34 percent (Joseph Gallivan, “Gasp! Kids look at sex & violence online,” New York Post, 917199). Of teens who accessed “objectionable” sites (porn, gambling, hategroup, offensive music, etc.), 79 percent accessed the sites from school computers (Newsday).
Children who aren’t seeking porn can also be exposed to it. Using a search engine to type in innocent words like toys, kitty, games or teen can lead children to the worst of web porn sites (see, e.g., M.L. Lyke, “Online smut: Too easy for kids to find?”, Seattle Post-lntelligencer, 514198; Ted Birdis, “Porn sites’ ‘traps’ are raising eyebrows and worries,” Philadelphia Inquirer, l0/8/98).
Some Internet pornographers purposefully use words like whitehouse, Titanic or Madonna in their web addresses or meta-tags to attract innocent seekers (see, e.g., Gene Emery, “Snooping on Young Internet Users,” Reuters World Report, 5128198; “Porn evokes use of celebrities,” The Youngstown Vindicator, 818199).
Other Internet pornographers use domain names that are extremely similar to those of high traffic web sites, like Beanie Babies, knowing many users will mistype the popular names (see, e.g., “Porn Sites Hope Kids Can’t Type,” Business Wire, 2117199).
Some web sites that carry ads for sites that are “X-rated” purposefully attract children by linking their own sites to sites intended for children (see, e.g., Dawn Chmielewski, “Shocking Report
Details How Children are Lured to CyberPorn,” Orange County Register, 714199). They do so because they get a fee each time someone clicks one of their ads for an “adult” sex site. That young children are unable to purchase the porn is irrelevant because once a child clicks the ad, the site gets a fee.
There are also pedophiles who use the Internet to contact children through chat rooms (see, e.g., Lisa W. Foderaro, “Two Are Indicted In Sex Abuse Of a Boy Met on Internet,” New York Times,
9/8199). A favorite tool of pedophiles is porn, which is used to desensitize and instruct their child victims.
I should add that the ALA’s “Library Bill of Rights” is not the same thing as the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. New York City libraries are not required by any law to follow the ALA version.
Another excuse given for not using screening technology is that it erroneously blocks some sites that are not pornographic. This happens, but screening technology continues to improve, and there are many different technologies to choose from. Libraries can and should also implement a review policy so that sites improperly blocked can be promptly unblocked.
Another excuse that libraries give for not using screening technology is that it provides a false sense of security because no technology can block all Internet sites containing pornographic
materials. No screening technology is perfect, but some screening technologies are much more effective than others in blocking porn. Furthermore, there is no one method that can provide perfect
protection, but combined with other safeguards (such as positioning computers so that screens are easily seen by a librarian or teacher, monitoring usage and enforcing rules), screening technology can help greatly to reduce minors’ access to porn.
I would add that the ALA apparently talks through both sides of its mouth. In arguing that the 1996 Communications Decency Act (CDA), which would have required Internet content providers to restrict minors’ access to indecent material, was unconstitutional, the ALA in its joint brief to the U.S. Supreme Court stated:
“The CDA is also unconstitutional because there are less restrictive measures Congress could have selected that would have been much more effective in preventing minors from gaining access to
indecent online material. The district court made extensive findings about the ability of user-based [screening] software…to prevent children from accessing indecent material, regardless of where it is posted [on the Internet]. ”
Another argument that has been made for not using screening technology is that it is not the job of public libraries to act “in loco parentis.” In other words, when parents send or allow their
children to go to tax dollar supported public libraries, they should not expect librarians to care any more about their children than the pornographers. In fact, they should expect less, because pornographers must obey obscenity and child porn laws, but the ALA typically lobbies to exempt public libraries from these laws.
Once again librarians talk through both sides of their mouths. They say that the First Amendment applies to libraries because libraries are agencies of state and local governments. But if libraries
are government agencies, by what authority do librarians tell the public that it is not their job to act “in loco parentis?”
Yet another excuse for not using screening technology is that the First Amendment prevents libraries from doing so. As I see it, the First Amendment does not require public libraries to provide unlimited Internet access to patrons. The purpose of public libraries is to further public education and research and to provide a means of preserving valuable materials that would otherwise be lost to future generations. Libraries can under the Constitution adopt Internet policies consistent with that historic purpose. By adopting such policies, libraries would not have to concern themselves much about obscenity or child porn laws because access would only be provided to Internet sites containing material with serious artistic, literary, political or scientific value.
The last excuse I will address this evening is that there is no need for technology since there is no conclusive proof that minors are harmed by exposure to porn. Most minors probably aren’t seriously harmed by exposure to porn because they have the good sense and inner strength to turn from it. But the evidence is overwhelming that exposure to pornography can and does cause harm to many youth and to many adults; and in two leading cases, one involving materials obscene for adults [Paris Adult Theater I v. Slaton, 1973] and the other materials obscene for minors [Ginsberg v. New York, 1967], the Supreme Court rejected the argument that conclusive scientific proof is required before government can regulate obscenity.
I conclude by saying that I do not view screening technology as the whole answer to children accessing Internet porn. I do see it is an essential element, especially in a day when parents, churches and schools all too often fail to impart sound values and character to youth; when ISPs refuse to do all they can to block or restrict access to injurious content on the Internet; and when government fails to enforce federal and state obscenity laws.
More than any other single factor, President Clinton’s failure to fulfill his 1992 campaign pledge to make “vigorous” enforcement of federal obscenity laws “a priority” has allowed the Internet to become a safe haven for hardcore pornographers.
No nation which allows its culture to become an open sewer can hope to totally protect its children from the deadly waste, whether floating on the surface or hidden in underlying currents.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY MORALITY IN MEDIA, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1999, PAGES 6 AND 7. THE ABOVE MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.