Moral judgements begin at home and stop at the library door

“It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.”

— American Library Association’s Freedom to Read and the Freedom to View

We applaud the way our local libraries handle complaints about patrons viewing pornography.

After we ourselves received a complaint from a Guilderland resident about seeing someone viewing pornography at the public library there, our Guilderland reporter Elizabeth Floyd Mair interviewed every library director in our coverage area.

Our local librarians share a similar philosophy. First, if they receive a complaint, they look into it.

Lots of times what a passer-by thinks is pornography is legitimate research. One complaint turned out to be a man who was having a vasectomy the next day, looking at a diagram of the surgical procedure. A complaint about someone viewing bestiality turned out to be a video of how to shear sheep. Ads for, say, perfumes have also been mistaken for pornography.

Second, the local librarians said, if their investigation found someone watching pornography that was offensive to someone else, the person would be asked to stop. This makes sense. It was likened to any other disruption in the library. The library is a public space and must be shared by people in a way that is not disruptive to others.

Sharing information freely is the business of libraries. This week, we’re writing about some complaints the Guilderland Public Library has fielded because it is stocking the recently-released “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff’s book on the Trump presidency.

Timothy Wiles, Guilderland’s library director, quoted an old saying: “A good library has something in it to offend everyone.”

In our story on pornography being viewed on library computers, we particularly like what Gail Sacco, director of the Voorheesville Public Library, had to say: Everyone has his or her own values. “Our democracy’s built on the freedom of information — the transparency — and also the respect for one another,” Sacco said.

Of course, it’s an entirely different matter if someone is doing something illegal in the library, like watching child pornography. That is against the law anywhere it’s viewed, not just in a library.

But what our local libraries are doing is not against the law. We’re stressing that this week because of a letter to the editor we received from Dan Kleinman, owner of SafeLibraries educational services. Kleinman has devoted himself to keeping libraries “safe” and took exception to some of the points made in our story.

We believe that, to keep our democracy safe, people need free access to information. The case that Kleinman cites repeatedly in his letter does not, in fact, make it illegal to allow library patrons to view what they want.

In the 2003 case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Congress could require public schools and libraries to install filters in order to receive federal funds. In a split decision, the court ruled that filters did not violate First Amendment rights to free speech and that the 2000 Children’s Protection Act was not unconstitutional.

The ALA in court argued some of the same points that James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, made to our reporter.

Filters, said LaRue, have two problems: overblocking and underblocking. As an example of overblocking, he said, patrons will say that filters block out sites that advocate for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) rights, but will allow access to anti-gay sites.

As an example of underblocking, he said, it’s possible to sit down in front of “any filter system in America,” type in sexual words in Spanish instead of English, and immediately bypass the filter.

Kleinman also believes the American Library Association is misleading librarians to break the law. We, however, believe our library leaders — the directors, the librarians, and the trustees — are intelligent people who have carefully weighed how to handle the situation.

Several of the libraries we cover have decided to forego the limited federal funds they would receive because they care more about making information available to the public. As the director of Bethlehem’s library, Geoff Kirkpatrick, put it: “The trustees and administration are more concerned about intellectual freedom than they are about the scarce dollars our library would be eligible for.”

So our libraries are not breaking the law as Kleinman would have us believe. Some have chosen not to accept funds so that, as the law would require, they don’t have to install filters.

Further, as Chris Hanson said after the Supreme Court handed down its decision in United States v. American Library Association, “Although we are disappointed that the Court upheld a law that is unequivocally a form of censorship, there is a silver lining. The Justices essentially rewrote the law to minimize its effect on adult library patrons.” Hansen was an attorney with the the American Civil Liberties Union, which had challenged the law on behalf of libraries, adult and minor library patrons, and internet content providers.

So, as LaRue told our reporter, while libraries have to put these filters on in order to receive federal funds, the filters can be taken off at the request of any adult patron.

We would make one recommendation to our local libraries: Rather than having the public-use computers out in the center of the library as many of them are, line them up not far from a wall so that patrons not using them won’t see the screens.

This configuration has many practical benefits. People often write personal letters on library computers, pay bills, or look up items that are private. Unlike a book, which can be read in a library without disturbing anyone else, a computer screen is highly visible.

It makes sense to give patrons as much privacy as possible.

“We feel it’s not our place to monitor what people see,” Sacco said. We couldn’t agree more. Librarians should not have to be arbiters of other people’s tastes and preferences.

Configuring computers in this way would ease the burden for librarians as well as providing privacy for patrons.

In the meantime, we urge patrons to respect other library users and we commend our local librarians for both their courage and candor.
— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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