Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Kids likely can keep borrowing R-rated rentals from library

Lake youngsters could continue to score R-rated entertainment under a recommendation by the county's library advisory board.

County commissioners today are expected to take up the library board's 9-0 decision last week against enacting a policy that would bar anyone younger than 17 from checking out restricted movies.

As it stands, young people can check out films ranging from the drug-, rape- and blood-laced classic Pulp Fiction to the recent Hostel -- which the Los Angeles Times said seemed to "have been tailored to its designated R 'for brutal scenes of torture and violence, strong sexual content, language and drug use.' "

The issue erupted in April after a nurse from Astor spotted two kids who appeared to be no more than 11 years old borrowing an R-rated Jackass: Number Two DVD at the Astor Public Library.

Commission Chairman Welton Cadwell, who serves as liaison for the library advisory board, attended Thursday's meeting.

"You kind of start going down a slippery slope" by creating restrictions, Cadwell said. "Some of our greatest literary pieces would probably be considered R-rated."

He said he plans to present the recommendation during his report to commissioners, and he would be surprised if they vote to limit what kids can check out.

"We could do it and have somebody challenge us," he said. "But why do that when there's already case law out there?"

At least two court decisions address issues involved in the panel's recommendation.

In 1970, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that a Kenosha, Wis., ordinance could not prevent minors from watching movies based on ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America. Although movie theaters can deny children admission to those movies, government-funded libraries can't legally stop children from checking them out.

"A public library is a limited public forum, and children have a First Amendment right to access information from a library," said Assistant County Attorney Kimberly Williams, who gave a legal opinion for the advisory board. "You don't have a constitutional right to go to a private movie theater."

Last year, in another federal case, a judge held that Minnesota cannot use industry ratings to fine children for renting or buying certain video games.

While that case did not deal with movies, it plays into the library board's decision because it bars a public body from making laws based on a voluntary ratings system such as the Motion Picture Association's.

"It's an unconstitutional delegation of authority for the county to use those MPAA ratings as a guideline for obscenity," Williams said.

One test for obscenity, supported by the Supreme Court, involves determining whether a work with questionable material has overall literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

The Lake County Library System has a selection policy that judges some work "primarily in terms of artistic merit, scholarship or documentation of the times." The policy also states that "selection decisions will not be limited by the possibility that materials may be accessible to children."

"Anytime a parent takes a child out, they are responsible for their children until they reach their age of majority," Library Services Director Wendy Breeden said. "We respect that right, and we encourage parents to exercise it."

The library system also allows parents to request restrictions on what their children can check out. Under the system, when a child with restricted access tries to check out something, a librarian gets an alert that outlines blocked materials.

The county attorney's office is determining whether librarians can impose such restrictions in the absence of a parent.

Elsewhere, Orange, Volusia and Osceola also have no restrictions on checkout items. In Polk, each library sets its own rules. Seminole does not carry DVDs or videos.

Karen Howard, chairwoman of the library advisory board, said that while the First Amendment and case law present compelling reasons to support the current policy, the primary issue before her was parental responsibility.

"If parents are not going to be happy with the materials at the library, they should take the bull by the horns," she said. "Go with your child."

Adrian G. Uribarri can be reached at or 352-742-5926.

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