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.
And they do need help, though not necessarily from DAD. Like most of us, council members are struggling with the unfamiliar and ever-expanding jargon and technology pertaining to Internet sites, search engines, and filtering software.
The fact that the technology is still young isn't just a worry for council members and parents who feel left behind. It also means it still has flaws. Older filters were word-based--they blocked sites containing certain pre-selected combinations of letters. So, for example, if someone searched for "Mars exploration" or "chicken breast" recipes, the filter might pick up the letters s-e-x and b-r-e-a-s-t and block the sites. More recently developed software blocks only sites considered undesirable by the company producing the filter. They offer no difficulties to users looking for information on Mars, but instead of enforcing the much-touted community standards, they enforce standards determined by the corporations producing the filters, says Diana Philip, regional director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU has been following the battle in Plano closely. They have a national policy against filtering, and when confronted with similar cases, the organization has taken the issue to court.
Most local libraries have steered away from filtering.
"Well, we have not had any complaints, and it is a First Amendment issue with libraries in general," says Joe Bearden, assistant director of Dallas public libraries. "We treat the Internet as any other information resource, and we do not believe in censoring."
Coppell's city council, on the other hand, decided to adopt a filtering device even before their library started offering Internet access through its five computers in October 1997. Its Library Advisory Board--like Plano's--was against the decision, says Judi Biggerstaff, library manager of William T. Cozby Public Library. But that's no problem. They have a new advisory board now, and it "is happy with our filtering product," she says.
While there is a concern about legal action in the future, "that depends on how policy is developed," says Diane Wetherbee, Plano city attorney. "I think there are ways to do it legally, and ways that raise concerns."
Yet when the ACLU faced filtering in courts in the past, they found that judges agree with their vision of an Internet unfettered by blocking software.
While access to pornography is not considered part of the First Amendment guarantees, the filtering software currently available is less than perfect, allowing some obscene material through while blocking sites considered perfectly admissible.
A Loudon County, Virginia, case in which the ACLU intervened is an example of what can happen. In order to enforce library policy and prevent access to sites considered obscene, pornographic, or otherwise harmful to children, the local library had installed X-Stop, a commercial site-blocking program. When some users found that sites such as the The Safer Sex Page, Banned Books Online, Books for Gay and Lesbian Teens Youth Page, and others that did not violate the library's policy were blocked, they sued, alleging the filtering had infringed upon their First Amendment rights.
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A judge, who coincidentally was a former librarian, ruled last November that forcing adults to use filtering software in public libraries "offends the guarantees of free speech" and forbade government officials in Loudon County from unconstitutionally restricting Internet access. While the ruling applies only to Virginia, the case is being closely watched nationwide. In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Reno vs. ACLU that the Internet is a free-speech zone deserving the highest protection from governmental intrusion, but the Virginia case was the first in which a court applied First Amendment principles to Internet access at a public library.
"When a public library decides to provide Internet access, it is in effect buying the entire content of the Internet. Determining what portions of that purchase to make available to patrons amounts to censorship," Philip says. The Virginia library allowed users to ask librarians to unblock the restricted sites, but that violates individual privacy, she says.
"Can you imagine living in a small town and having to explain to the librarian why you want to access a breast cancer site, or one dealing with gay and lesbian issues?" Philip asks. Also, she adds, "by adopting clumsy filtering software we are taking responsibility away from parents and libraries and giving it to the government and private corporations."
Whether Plano will add itself to the relatively small number of public libraries offering filtered Internet access--15 percent nationwide, according to the American Library Association, which also opposes filtering--remains to be seen. The council members appointed to investigate the city's options are still investigating, though Bode says they are "looking at a system that will include some type of filtering.