Digital Pornography Catches Library With Its Pants Down

It wasn't the type of thing Sarah Baker expected to hear during "story hour" at a public library. Baker was waiting for help from a reference librarian on the afternoon of Monday, July 21st, her two-year-old daughter "running around the aisles," when she says she heard from behind, "Look at the tits on that one!" and "HeÕs gonna fuck her!" (Baker won't repeat the words.)"When I turned to see what was going on," Baker recalls, "I saw these three boys who were maybe 10- to 14-years-old watching very graphic, pornographic material" -- material displayed on one of the libraryÕs computers via the Internet.Baker says she saw "a naked woman from the waist down, and a naked man from the waist down, and the man was moving closer to the woman until there was an actual sex act going on." She says the boys then clicked to a scene where "a woman was on her hands and knees having sex with a man. It was very hard core."Baker, a 26-year-old mother of one, had gone with her daughter to get information on its "story hour" schedule. But the next day she told her own story -- she called the newsrooms of KMOL-TV 12 and KENS-TV 5."It's just that I was so mad," Baker fumes. "There's a lot of stuff that I disagree with that I don't really speak up about. But this was just so openly wrong." Her anger was stoked when she notified a librarian of the boys' activities. "She told me there was nothing she could do," Baker claims, "and she informed me that I was infringing on [the boys'] rights by looking over their shoulders at what they were doing.""Library Porn" was the KENS headline. In typical, titillating KENS fashion, the report intercut footage of children working at non-Internet library workstations with still shots of strategically masked porn-site nudes, making it appear the children were logged on to pornography.Titillating though it may have been, the report addressed an issue now alight in controversy. The SAPL is a signatory to the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights (1996), which states, "Freedom of expression is an inalienable human right and the foundation for self-government. Freedom of expression encompasses freedom of speech and the corollary right to receive information. These rights extend to minors as well as adults. Libraries and librarians exist to facilitate the exercise of these rights...."But current technology calls the breadth of that mission into question with concerns over free speech, privacy, censorship, public access, and parental responsibility, as unsupervised children have free access to adult sexual material on the Internet.Library spokeswoman Celine Cassilas Thomason has her department working on a brochure for the public which she hopes will clarify the libraryÕs Internet policy: that providing private, unrestricted Internet access is part of the library's mission. And concerned citizens who called following the TV news reports received a letter from Library Director June Garcia directing them to the SAPL's two Internet home pages, for all ages, and for young people."These pages," wrote Garcia, "list Web addresses in the same way that libraries have traditionally distributed booklists for children, teenagers, and adults that present a variety of viewpoints and information."But, Garcia goes on, "The best way to protect children from inappropriate material on the Internet is for parents to guide their children's the same manner parents supervise their reading and television and film viewing." Some parents may take that advice, but many won't. Unsupervised children are a constant presence at branch libraries, particularly in the after-school hours when the libraries become temporary daycare centers until parents get off work.Thomason says she understands parents might be concerned that their children can, if they choose, log on to inappropriate sites while at the library by themselves. And, she notes, "We don't want to discourage unsupervised kids. But how is the library supposed to make value decisions for your family?" she asks. "Most parents don't want a third party intervening on their behalf."Thomason also notes that although library personnel will not tell Internet users what they can or cannot see, the libary has installed polarized filters over the monitors of Internet-enabled computers. Though she admits they are not 100-percent effective, the filters significantly distort the on-screen image for anyone but the user.That's not good enough for Adam McManus. A talkshow host on Christian radio station KSLR-AM 630, McManus has glommed on to the library Internet issue as a cause celebre for his fledgling afternoon drive-time program, "Take a Stand With Adam McManus.""I've been giving out the number [to the library] every other day," McManus says. "I've called them live on the air and asked them what pornography they're pushing on minors today. I'm giving them a hard time. They deserve it."It's outrageous that minor kids can get access to pornographic materials in a local library that they couldn't possibly get in a convenience store," McManus says vehemently. "We're not talking about just Playboy airbrushed centerfolds. We're talking about actual conjugal acts. And I don't sense any level of accountability on the part of the library staff."In addition to giving out numbers for both the library and the mayor's office, McManus regularly airs satirical -- bordering on slanderous -- recorded vignettes lampooning the library's policies. In one, a teenage boy asks a librarian for help in researching George Washington on the Internet."We don't make that kind of information available anymore," the librarian informs him. "We've decided to specialize full time in making graphic pornography available to young boys." The librarian then offers -- in a steamy, phone-sex voice -- to help the boy log on to Penthouse and Hustler. McManus has also made Sarah Baker a recurring feature of his show. She has appeared four times since July 21 to promote a petition she intends to send to the library board of directors. And McManus gives out Baker's home phone number (with her consent) throughout the week."Just as a result of Sarah Baker's appearances on my show," McManus says, "she has received 300 calls from our listeners asking for the petition."Not quite. Baker says she has received about a hundred calls. And Thomason says that despite McManus' efforts, "If anything, the response of the public seems to have quieted down. We got about eight letters and maybe 20 calls." Assistant to the Mayor Julia Castellano-Hoyt says, after checking with other personnel in Howard Peak's office, that the mayor has received only six or seven calls. McManus' self-serving hyperbole aside, he has also been using his program to advocate the legitimate alternative of installing filtering software on library computers to block access to adult-oriented Internet material.Such programs, marketed to home computer users under names such as Cyber Patrol, Cybersitter, Net Nanny and SurfWatch, are themselves prone to controversy. Trials of these systems by the American Library Association, the New York and Austin public libraries and ConsumerÕs Union revealed that blocking access to sites which contain the keyword "sex" also blocked the Mars Explorer home page (www.marsex), and information on poet Anne Sexton. Keywords of a more specific nature such as "breast" blocked access to information on breast cancer.McManus and Baker claim there are more effective filters available. But ironically, if it chooses to install any kind of filter, the library will be venturing into dangerous First Amendment territory.According to David Ditfurth, a professor of constitutional law at St. Mary's University, "Libraries don't have [a constitutional] mandate to provide information to the public. If they decide to continue [Internet access] and put in an efficient, clean filter that works only on material that's not supposed to go to minors, the constitutional question goes away."But a constitutional violation appears on the horizon if the library provides access but controls the flow," Ditfurth warns. "If the library used an inefficient filter, it would be discriminating against acceptable materials. As an adult, I'm protected against that."That leads McManus to suggest, "If this is such prickly issue and it's difficult to find a balance, maybe we should just not have the Internet on any of our computers, and just have them there for basic, old-fashioned searches of newspaper and magazine articles like they used to."But Thomason, noting the American Library Association statistic that only one in three households in the U.S. owns a computer, says "The cost of new technology is still not within the reach of many people in our community." Phasing out Internet access at the library would, she says, "create a gap between the 'information rich' and the 'information poor.' Public libraries have a vital role in equalizing this disparity."In looking back, somewhat regretfully, at the controversy she stirred up, Sarah Baker suggests the best -- perhaps the only -- solution to protecting library-visiting children from adult Internet sites:"I didn't know it was going to snowball into this, but I wanted to bring this to the public's attention. I'm sure parents wouldn't be dropping their kids off at the library and leaving them unattended knowing there's a possibility they could see this."

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