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Public Library Should Block Offensive Online Material

Two years ago, $1.5 million in tax money purchased 25 computers for public use at the Spokane Public Library, and together with $27,000 per year, we have full Internet service.

Hearings were held and Dan Walters, the former library director, admitted material would be available on the Internet that would never have been purchased for our library collection. He said the library would consider purchasing a filter, but so far, all filters have been deemed too restrictive.

There is a critical need to filter illegal, patently offensive material on all public computers with Internet access, especially at the public library. It is inexpensive, easy to do and in line with the policy of other major cities as well as the U.S. Congress. Most importantly, it would benefit our youth and the welfare of our whole community.

Even if parents attempt to protect the innocence of their children by placing a blocking device on their own computers, their children still may be able to access harmful material if they have a library card and PIN number. There have been abuses at the library. In October 1995, pornography was being dowloaded on a computer downtown until the patron’s computer privileges were revoked. The paper reported that the library information manager, Garv Brakel, has to assign staff to the nightly job of “slime scraping” - removing inappropriate material.

All of this can be avoided by employing the services of a commercial filtering system. Installed at the server level, recent technological advances allow the system to be tied to a database that updates it 24 hours a day. It comes with an administrative code that would allow a librarian to click over to full Internet access for research purposes, if necessary. It is not too restrictive because there are a variety of access options. By blocking the hard core, offensive pornographic sites, it opens the Internet to children’s access without having to create special age-appropriate sites.

The city of Boston is installing a filtering system on all publicly owned computers, including ones at libraries, schools, community centers and government offices. Michael Hernon, Boston’s head of technology, said, “We think it’s the issue of appropriate use of property that the city owns.”

Dorothy Field, director of the Orange County library in Orlando, Fla., said, “We want to put the taxpayers’ dollars to effective use. Pornographic materials are not selected in print media and we see no reason why it should be allowed into the library in any other form.”

Even Seattle’s King County Library has installed software filters on a limited scale.

A 1995 study found that 83.5 percent of pictorial images on Usenet news groups are pornographic and nearly 50 percent of all downloads from commercial bulletin boards depict unhealthy or anti-social kinds of sexual activity, such as sadomasochism, torture and mutilation, group sex, bestiality, sanction of the “rape myth” and involvement of children.

Exposure to pornography is psychologically harmful to children. Our city has a compelling interest in safeguarding the physical and psychological well-being of a minor. Spokane already has three times as many sex offenders as Seattle per capita; our tax money should not be used to encourage more.

Parental supervision alone is not sufficient to prevent children from accessing pornography at the library. The answer is not to deny them access to the Internet’s vital educational resources, either. The library would suffer no culpability if it made a good-faith effort to screen patently offensive material using a commercial filtering system.

Parents have an expectation that our public library, under the jurisdiction of the City Council, has a public trust to protect the welfare of our youths, at least to the extent that it will do them no harm. Let the library director, Aubrey George, and the mayor know how you feel.