Plano wades into the thicket of Internet access, porn, and the First Amendment

When Plano resident Jane Neidenfeuhr walked into her neighborhood library early last October, she was just looking for books. What she found instead caught this homemaker and mother of two off guard.

"I had just gotten off a computer, and I saw two boys--maybe fifth- or sixth-graders--waiting to get on the terminal," says Neidenfeuhr. "I went off to check out my books, and when I walked by again, I glanced at what they were doing, and I thought 'No way! These boys are looking at pornography!'"

When she brought this to the librarian's attention, Neidenfeuhr was surprised to learn that library policy does not hold librarians responsible for monitoring what patrons access on the Internet.

"She told me this was between the boys and their parents," Neidenfeuhr remembers. "I was appalled. I thought, there is something wrong here."

So Neidenfeuhr contacted the Dallas Association for Decency, an anti-porn group, and they educated her on "how easy it is for kids to do this and hide it." The following Tuesday, it was her turn to introduce Plano City Council members to the dangers of the Internet. The council members reacted with protestations of shock and dismay and vowed to reconsider unrestricted Internet access on Plano public libraries' 28 computers. With that, Plano joined the thousands of public library and school systems nationwide already confronting a legally and ethically messy dilemma: Should Internet access at schools and libraries be censored to serve what Plano council member Dick Bode called "our community standards?" Can it be done while still preserving the First Amendment rights of users, both adults and minors?

Plano's Library Advisory Board didn't think so. After holding a public hearing, the board unanimously voted to re-endorse its current policy, which considers parents responsible for monitoring what a child accesses on library computers and opposes filtering. The policy was adopted in October 1997, a year after the city's libraries were connected to the Internet.

"Ours was a thrust of parental responsibility relative to Internet usage by adolescents," says Robert Johntz, chairman of the advisory panel. "Parents don't need to be watching over their shoulders, but just showing responsibility for their children by educating them as to what should and shouldn't be done." The board also agreed to post warnings reminding forgetful computer users that "access to child pornography, obscene, and other illegal materials is prohibited by Texas and federal law."

But the warnings were not reassuring enough for the council members. For the first time, city officials overruled the advisory board's decision on what materials are appropriate in Plano's libraries.

"The library board has always been the one to handle any censorship problems. The council has never been involved," Maribelle Davis, director of Plano's library system, told The Dallas Morning News. Davis was the city's first paid librarian and has worked for Plano for 30 years. She admitted she felt "despair and frustration" at the moral atmosphere of the November city council meeting, where some speakers brought up the need to preserve family values through the public library.

"[Council members] have gotten deeply involved in this and want to formulate the policy at a much more detailed level than city councils usually do in these kinds of issues," Johntz says. "They are not just hitting and running."

Council members Pat Evans and Rick Neudorff were appointed to investigate the options for installing blocking software on public computers. On January 10, they delivered what promised to be one of a series of reports on the issue.

Plano's council members may be even more concerned about keeping local libraries squeaky-clean than a good portion of Plano residents themselves. Council member Bode admits that "public input has been very evenly split." Residents who e-mailed and those who came to speak at the public hearings appeared to weigh evenly on both sides.

"My first reaction when I heard the idea was, 'What's wrong with filtering?' but when I started to study the issue more, I realized that this is just another form of censorship, and is therefore unconstitutional," says Ron Mershaw, a Plano resident and ACLU member who attended the meetings.

This, however, "is an emotionally charged issue, and [the council member's] political futures are at stake," he says. "You can do a lot of good work in other areas, but people who don't care about things like zoning will get upset about pornography and protecting kids.

"The people that were [at the city council meetings] were not representative of Plano residents anyway, especially not of library users, who just want to take care of their own business," he explains. "A lot of them had been brought by the Dallas Association for Decency."

After fighting the sale of adult magazines at convenience stores and crusading for the end of topless bars in Dallas, DAD has redirected its efforts toward keeping children safe from pornography on the Internet. Since Neidenfeuhr contacted them to learn about "filtering and all this stuff that this mommy didn't know," DAD has been "trying to help the city council understand the issue...and help them make the right decision," says Dan Panetti, DAD's executive director.

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