Computer ‘porn’ policies at metro public libraries are strict but not foolproof

Creative Commons/Alan D.

Lars Leafblad was shepherding his young children through the Ramsey County Library’s branch in Roseville when he was appalled to see a man checking out more than books.

The man was looking at Internet porn on the library computer.

In the front row.

Where the kids could see.

One dad’s complaint
Leafblad, a Roseville resident who publishes his Pollen networking blog on MinnPost, hurried his children away and alerted a librarian. The staffer, however, told him there might not be anything they could do about it. (It turned out, though, that something was done, official say.)

Leafblad’s post about the encounter on his Facebook page drew dozens of comments. They ranged from those furious that the material was visible to children in a taxpayer-supported institution, to those who said that if it isn’t illegal, it’s free speech protected by the First Amendment.

Here’s Leafblad’s post:

Parents, a warning if you visit Roseville Public Library, cover your kids eyes when walking past the computer lab. Guy today was looking up pornographic Anime images right in the front row. Steered our kids away in time but am just speechless after I told a librarian and she said she’d share w/ the supervisor but wasn’t sure they could do anything. I respect freedom of speech, but really?!?

When I called Ramsey County library officials this week, they checked on the incident and told me that the librarians in Roseville did, after all, handle the situation following Leafblad’s complaint.

“A staff member spoke to the computer user, explained our policies, and the gentleman closed out the computer,” said Kristi Saksvig, communications manager for the library system.

Filters and policies are designed to prohibit pornography viewing in the libraries, she said, but there can still be occasions when objectional material gets through. When that happens, patrons should tell staff members, as Leafblad did, she said.

“If we know about it, we can take care of it,” she said.

Policies aim to protect minors
Ramsey County Library Internet policy (PDF) includes a clause about the use of “materials harmful to minors,” which would cover the viewing of offensive materials in areas where children are present, which in the public libraries, is everywhere.

The same is true in the Hennepin County-Minneapolis system, which in 2004 paid a $435,000 settlement to librarians who had sued because they felt Internet pornography viewing in the libraries constituted harassment.

Lois Thompson, the system’s director, said there are still occasions when pornography gets through the filters and pops up on a library computer screen. But not often. And when it does, librarians take action.

“Pornography is legal, but it’s not allowed in the library,” she said. That’s because it is deemed harmful to minors, and minors are allowed everywhere in the libraries, she said.

The policy in Hennepin County says:

It is illegal for library customers to use the Library’s Internet access to view, print, distribute, display, send or receive images, or graphics of material that violates laws relating to child pornography.

Library customers may not knowingly exhibit or display any material which is harmful to minors in its content or material that is obscene in any place of public accommodation where minors are or may be present and where minors are able to view the material.

Workstations are equipped with software that filters out pornography.

Thompson said staff members keep an eye on the computers and respond to complaints.

“If our security people or other staff see it, or it’s reported, we’ll tell the person that it’s not allowed and they need to stop. If they won’t, they must leave,” she said. “When asked, they usually stop.”

In St. Paul, the Internet policy also forbids calling up pages on the Internet that are harmful to minors, which is defined this way:

“Harmful to minors” means that quality of any graphic, in whatever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse, when it:
•    predominantly appeals to the prurient, shameful, or morbid interest of minors, and
•    is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is
•    suitable material for minors, and
•    lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.

By contrast, anything goes in NYC
These family-friendly Internet porn policies of the Minnesota libraries apparently don’t extend to New York City, though, according to an April story in the New York Post. Says the story, headlined: “City libraries say ‘checking out’ porn protected by First Amendment”:

Shakespeare’s plays, Einstein’s theories — and porn queen Jenna Jameson’s steamy online sexcapades.
New Yorkers can take their pick at the city’s public libraries, thanks to a policy that gives adults the most uncensored access to extreme, hard-core Internet smut this side of the old Times Square.

The electronic smut falls under the heading of free speech and the protection of the First Amendment, library officials say.

“Customers can watch whatever they want on the computer,” said Brooklyn Public Library spokeswoman Malika Granville, describing the anything-goes philosophy that’s the rule at the city’s 200-plus branches.

Many, however, likely will favor the way we do it here in Flyover Land.
  

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 08/11/2011 - 09:29 am.

    “I respect freedom of speech, but really?!?” This quote from Lars indicates he actually doesn’t respect, or at least understand, freedom of speech. My guess is virtually every one of these policies violates the Constitution.

  2. Submitted by Arito Moerair on 08/11/2011 - 12:31 pm.

    It’s probably legal to look at porn on library computers. But I don’t think that matters. My approach would be to shame people into not doing it in a public place like this. Make them feel uncomfortable for doing it. But then, do library porn users have any shame? Obviously not.

    If I were in Lars’s position, I probably would just not bring my child to the library. My kid doesn’t need to see that. I wouldn’t sue the library or raise a huge fuss or anything; we’d just avoid the place altogether.

    As a Roseville resident, I am not at all surprised it happened here. (I feel Roseville is becoming less of a good place for kids with every passing day, but that’s another discussion.) I fear for the future of public libraries, especially in urbanized areas like this. Everything is going online; will children in ten years need libraries for anything? And/or will libraries just continue to be places for the local riff-raff to get free computer access?

  3. Submitted by William Levin on 08/12/2011 - 12:20 pm.

    Mr. Moufang: Take a trip to the Hennepin County Libraries like Minneapolis Central, or neighborhood libraries like Franklin or Sumner. You’ll see adults at work on citizenship and/or job searches and/or self-improvement, and you’ll see kids at Homework Hub. The future of the public library is already here; it looks good!

  4. Submitted by Michael O'Connor on 08/14/2011 - 04:48 pm.

    It appears that the library will not do anything unless it becomes publicized. “[I] am just speechless after I told a librarian and she said she’d share w/ the supervisor but wasn’t sure they could do anything.” Perhaps the library needs to now inform their ‘professional’ librarians of their new policies. This is just another example of liberalism gone awry.

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