[Journal-News (Westchester County, NY)](1999-Current)
  Home > NewsBank Full-Text Newspapers  Edit Search   Help  

    Record 3 of 67

Journal News, The (Westchester County, NY)

March 5, 2003

Top court hears library-Internet case

Author: Barbara Livingston Nackman; Staff
The Journal News

Section: News
Page: 1A

Index Terms:
GWPR-Westchester and Putnam and Rockland

Estimated printed pages: 4

Article Text:

At issue: Using filters for child protection versus censorship fear

Barbara Livingston Nackman

The Journal News

The debate over requiring public libraries to install filters on computers to block out objectionable, sometimes sexually explicit, Internet sites reaches its highest legal forum today as the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments.

Depending on the court's ruling, sites about space exploration, the Super Bowl and some medical information, for example, may be off limits at public libraries that accept federal money. Most people are unaware of the heated debate to restrict access.

"I want to be able to find the information I need," said Christina Aramesto, 45, of Tarrytown, a daily visitor to the Warner Library. This week, she was researching possible college choices for her son, seeking information on weight-loss programs and a breast cyst, and hunting for interior-design courses.

Maurice Freedman, president of the American Library Association, vehemently opposes filters, saying they go against the core of libraries. Under the law, libraries would be responsible for purchasing and installing filtering software produced by a variety of technology companies. Two such products are Net Nanny and Cybersitter.

"It is fundamental to the freedom of library users to pursue and satisfy their information needs. Librarians are committed to providing access. The filters don't work they deprive people of access to constitutionally protected speech. Some examples of filter failures may seem silly, but others are really serious," he said, noting that the association is a defendant in the case.

He said he will be in the court gallery to hear arguments.

"This will be a significant ruling. In our current times, it's important to uphold civil liberties," he added.

Filter proponents contend that libraries, as public institutions, should not be allowed to use taxpayers' money to supply objectionable material.

"We do not think there is anything censoring about a policy that protects children from offensive materials," said James Bruner, executive director of New York Family Policy Council in Albany. "State laws don't allow people to hand children alcohol, tobacco or pornography. Should our librarians - under the name of freedom of speech - be allowed to violate criminal laws?" he asks.

"(Not having a filter) can turn every library into a smut shop," he added.

Congress enacted the Children's Internet Protection Act in December 2000. It was set to go into effect April 20, 2001, but didn't, after the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law.

In June, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled the legislation would prevent access to reasonable material, thus violating First Amendment rights and preventing free speech. The government, through the Justice Department, brought the matter to U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court receives more than 8,000 applications annually, a spokeswoman said. Judges generally hear from 90 to 100 cases per term with decisions made by late June or early July. About a dozen cases a year focus on First Amendment rights.

Most librarians hope the appeals court ruling is upheld, said director Eleanor Kuhns of the Finkelstein Memorial Library in Spring Valley, which has 18 terminals in a technology center and six others in general areas.

"People think if they filter, then their child is safe. It is a false sense of security," she said, noting that parental attention and library supervision are the best filter.

Though filters may be appropriate for children's areas, she said, the software prevents people from reaching worthwhile sites and doesn't block out many objectionable sites, particularly those with violent images.

Freeman, who also serves as executive director of the Westchester Library System, a 38-library cooperative, said filters would block sites dealing with breast cancer and reproductive health because of body part images. Also nixed would be sites of poet Ann Sexton and the Mars Explorer - because the letters s-e-x appear sequentially - and the Super Bowl because of the three X's in its Roman numeral identification.

The government contends the legislation does not ask librarians to violate First Amendment rights, but allows information professionals the same discretion they have in selecting or not selecting print materials for a library. For example, most public libraries do not subscribe to Playboy or Hustler magazines, though many of the editorial pieces have become newsworthy.

"The size of the Web is so huge. The notion that a small California software company can look at 3 billion pages on the Web and determine whether something should be blocked is silly," said the union's senior staff counsel Chris Hansen, a Mount Vernon resident. The products can't do the task, he said, adding that most filters focus on blocking visual images while overlooking written portions of Web pages.

Sitting at a terminal last week at the Mahopac Public Library, customs broker Joe Chiappetta, 51, of Mahopac, said he favored filters.

"We can all agree what can be filtered out," he said. "People can look at whatever they want to at home. But this is a public place."

Reach Barbara Livingston Nackman at bnackman@thejournalnews.com or call 845-228-2272.

In favor of filters:

Federal money shouldn't be used to access objectionable materials.

Lack of filters creates hostile work environment for librarians.

Filters can prevent improper materials from reaching children and adults.

Libraries are public places and community standards should be upheld.

Against filters:

Unsuccessful in keeping out all "objectionable" materials.

When applied, software prevents access of needed materials.

Filters deprive people of constitutionally protected materials.

Filters are subject to moral tastes of software company.

Copyright (c) The Journal News. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc. by NewsBank, inc.
Record Number: wst2003030509495324