On Feb. 20, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to accept the recommendations of the Pima County Library Internet Policy Committee. From public reaction to the recommendations, one might think that the committee protected a right to watch pornography on library computers. I served on the committee, and nothing could be further from the truth.
The challenge for the Pima County Public Library was to find a filtering system that denied access to obscenity and child pornography, but not to other speech protected by the First Amendment. If such a filter existed, the committee would have unanimously endorsed its use.
But, and this is the important point, such a filtering system does not exist.
The committee learned a great deal about computer filtering systems. They are not set up for public libraries to deal with access questions, but for private businesses to determine what sites employees may access on company computers. For example, a company, such as Raytheon, may decide that it does not want employees to visit Web sites such as eBay, Amazon.com or YouTube.
It presents a serious constitutional problem for public libraries to adopt such an approach. Filters block material that might be obscenity or child pornography, but also material protected by the First Amendment.
As the head librarian for the city of Phoenix, Toni Garvey, told the committee, "filters block things that are perfectly legal and useful, and you don't know what you've blocked." That's because the decision to filter is made by the filtering software company, not by our librarians. No one knows what sites such software filters.
A second misconception is that people seek unfiltered access to the Internet to see pornography. Adult patrons who choose unfiltered access have many other objectives, such as seeking health information about breast cancer, erectile dysfunction or sexually transmitted diseases. In the end, some software excludes much material that is protected by the First Amendment.
Perhaps one could argue that this is a small price to pay if we prevent people from accessing obscenity and child pornography over public library computers. But the use of public library computers for such purposes is a small, almost nonexistent, problem.
To determine the extent of the problem of pornography in public libraries, the committee surveyed librarians. Twenty-six of 29 branch managers responded that pornography was never a problem or a problem relatively few times. Only three branch managers responded that it was sometimes a problem and none responded that it was often a problem.
By accepting the committee's recommendations, the Board of Supervisors has decided that all computers will be filtered but adults may obtain unfiltered access to the Internet if they agree to abide by the library's code of conduct. And adults would be notified that viewing obscenity or child pornography is illegal and that Arizona law prohibits displaying content that is harmful to minors.
In our civic life, public libraries play a critical role by facilitating citizens' access to material that challenges the mind, engages the imagination and encourages a well-informed citizenry able to exercise its enormous responsibilities in our republican form of government. The board's decision preserves this important function of our public libraries by rejecting unnecessary and unwise censorship.
Write to Robert Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org.