Why Librarians Are Defending Your Right to Watch Porn at the Library

It's about a lot more than porn.

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Dec 11 2014, 1:00pm

​Image:​ KTH Biblioteket/Flickr

Librarians across the country are squaring off against overprotective parents and offendable conservatives over the right to access information, even if that information is porn. And they're willing to go to the ropes over it.

Take the Orland Park Public Library, a community library in a suburb southwest of Chicago. Last year, self-identified conservative homeschooling mom Megan Fox launched a campaign to get the library to install filters on its computers after she claims to have seen a man looking at pornography in the library's adult-only computer lab (the library has a separate, filtered computer lab for children). The library board voted on the issue and decided not to install filters, but to require identification for anyone logging on.

Not satisfied, Fox and her supporters continued to hound the board, often resulting in police being called to heated meetings. She filed so many FOIA requests that the library has had to dedicate two full-time employees to respond to them. She accused the library of covering up an incident of someone looking at child pornography, and she forced a re-vote on the issue by having the Public Access Bureau declare a board meeting illegal because it was held on Lincoln's birthday.

"It's not really about what I saw. That was the spark that lead to the inferno," Fox told a local r​adio station at the time, pointing to documents that showed incidents of public masturbation at the library were sometimes not reported to police. She said her main concern was about children seeing something inappropriate.

"The computer lab is on the same floor as the teen area that has teen books and study rooms and teenagers have to walk past it and they also have to share the same bathrooms as men who are becoming sexually aroused looking at pornography."

Image: ​Sean/Flickr

While this particular case turned into a three-ring circus quickly—speaking of which, Fox also campaigns against mus​eums and zoos teaching visitors about evolution—it's not a unique fight. Every week, another library in the US is pressured to add filters to its computers, according to Barbara Jones, the director of the office for intellectual freedom for the American Library Association.

"In the past, we've been used to a parent coming in or a pastor coming in, perhaps, a community member worried about a particular book," Jones told me on the phone this week. "But what we're seeing now are organized attacks on libraries."

Libraries have been advocates for a right to access information long before the digital age. Book banning and burning has been a national pastime for various sections of the population for decades, and libraries have always stood in the face of that, advocating in the belief that people have a right to read, learn, and access everything the world has to offer.

"There have always been disputes over whether we should have sex manuals or books about creating bombs. There have always been those kinds of conflicts and librarians have tried to put out guidelines to have the most open access possible," said Michael Zimmer, a privacy and internet ethics expert who runs the Center for Information Policy Rese​arch at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Remember when a bunch of people wanted Harry Potter pulled from​ the shelves because it promoted witchcraft? Yeah, this is nothing new.

Should it be the role of the government and the library to decide what I can look at and what I can't look at?​

But the internet has opened access to an ever-growing store of information—far more than can be contained on library shelves—and the pushback has grown along with it.

Since 2000, the Children Internet Protection Act has required all schools and libraries that receive federal funding to install filters on their computers—and which occasionally block relevant, non-expl​icit infor​mation. The ALA tried to fight the law, calling it unconstitutional, but it was upheld.

To get around it, and provide unfettered access, some libraries have separate computer labs for adults 18 or over so the computers used by children can comply with the law. Others turn down the funding altogether.

Granted, fighting for the right to look at porn in a public library might not seem worth putting one's neck on the line, and plenty of libraries have caved and installed filters to appease their community. But the issue goes far beyond free reign to ogle bare breasts between the periodical stacks—though anyone who was ever 12 years old and stumbled onto a copy of National Geographic did just that anyway, no internet required.

For one, the filters available are not nearly sophisticated enough to block out only very specific information, both Zimmer and Jones told me. While we can all agree we don't want people accessing child pornography at the local library, there's no filter out there that can guarantee it won't also block out anything else. In fact, they tend to block out a lot more.

The ALA published a rep​ort investigating the use of filters and found they were disproportionately blocking out left-leaning views on issues such as gay marriage and abortion. LGBT community websites were often blocked and identified as "sexual" sites.

They also found that low-income individuals are more impacted by filters. If you're able to afford internet at home and aren't finding the information you need at school or the library because it's blocked out, the easy solution is to head home and Google it there. But for those whose only access point to the internet is at school or the public library, filters can choke out their ability to have the same access to information as their peers. Libraries in lower-income communities are also more likely to have filters because they lean on government funding and can't afford separate labs.

And of course, there's the slippery slope argument: if we start with pornography, where do we go from there? What's appropriate in the eyes of one person might be wildly offensive to someone else.

"Any form of filtering is problematic. Should it be the role of the government and the library to decide what I can look at and what I can't look at?" Zimmer told me in a recent phone conversation.

Plus, there's a natural privacy angle. "I can read a book at the library and put it back on the shelf and nobody knows what I did. But if use a computer I might be subject to a whole lot more surveillance," he added.

And as Zimmer pointed out, if a community is coming out strongly against access to certain ideas or information, it only makes it more important for the library to make those ideas available. In West Bend, Wisconsin, some people wanted​ the library to ban young adult books that described premarital sex and homosexuality. Just imagine being a closeted gay teen in that town.

"To me, that's why the library is so important. There's going to be that person or those kids that are going to need access to information that they may not be able to get somewhere else," Zimmer said. "To me, that's the beauty of the public library."