Library has new Internetfilter policy

By Kaitlin Manry - Daily World writer

The First Amendment versus censorship. Kids and pornography.

Those emotional issues are colliding in cyberspace at your local library, and the role of librarian as gatekeeper is being debated nationwide.

Until recently, kids of all ages could walk into any Timberland Regional library and access sexually explicit material on the Internet - unless their parents had informed librarians that they didn't want their children using the Internet at all or only through a filtered connection.

Now, a child under 18 seeking a library card won't get one unless a parent or legal guardian makes a decision on the scope of Internet access.

Parents of children who already have Timberland cards are being asked to make a decision on Internet access levels.

Kids under 14 whose parents haven't responded are being restricted to filtered computers.

Those between 14 and 18 are choosing for themselves, if their don't respond.

If parents limit their kids to filtered only machines, they also must decide if their kids can have filtered access in the same area where other library users have unfiltered access. In other words, a filtered and unfiltered user could be side by side.

The Timberland Board decided on the new plan in August, but has just started implementing it in the last few weeks for kids whose parents haven't decided.

"Before, parents were saying, 'Oh, my child's too young. My child will never use computers at the library,' " said Roberta Holmes, Hoquiam's community librarian. "Now they have to decide."

Timberland libraries in Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Pacific and Thurston counties are part of a conservative minority of public libraries that use filtering, according to American Library Association President Maurice J. Freedman.

ALA statistics indicate that 75 percent of U.S. public libraries have no filtering system on their computers, he said.

"The problem with filters is they don't work," he said. "They give people a false sense of protection and that is a really important issue. They think that their children will be protected from everything nasty that can be found on the Internet and it's totally untrue. What you have is things like chat rooms. Filters don't stop chat rooms from happening. ... Filters filter out viable information. In a more formal way, they filter out constitutionally protected speech."

However, Timberland patrons indicated that they they'd prefer imperfect filtering to none, according to Michael Wessells, a Timberland manager. He said the Timberland Board decided its change its Internet policy following a two - year review of the previous system.

Earlier this year, the board asked the public what it thought about the previous Internet policy.

"We got several hundred responses," Wessells said. "They went across the board, from filter everyone to filter just some people. But approximately two out of three were looking for some fort of filter, which is why the board responded by filtering for younger children."

Board members voted 4 - 3 to adopt the new filtering policy. Art Blauvelt, the board president and Grays Harbor representative on the seven - member board, voted in favor the new policy.

"I support the decision to place the responsibility for selection on the parents of the children," the attorney said. "This is consistent with Timberland's promise that parents control the selection choices of their children. It's consistent with the law and it encourages parental participation."

Sitting in a padded chair on the second floor of the Aberdeen Library, Preston Ward, 14, said he thinks the new system is better because it protects more kids from seeing explicit things.

"I think it's a good idea, because if parents feel uncomfortable with their kids coming down here and looking at that kind of stuff, they can sign them up and prevent that," the Aberdeen High School freshman said.

Putting down one of his favorite books, "Fire Bringer," which is about a herd of talking deer, the twice - a - week unfiltered Internet user said he can understand why parents would want their kids using a filter. "So I think it's pretty cool actually. It's like a shield."

But that's the problem; filtering lacks the reliability and consistency of a shield, Freedman and Wessells agree.

They both listed several "legitimate and appropriate" websites blocked by programs like Websense, Timberland's filter. Among them are the sites of Congressmen Dick Armey, Superbowl XXX, poet Anne Sexton, the Morris Explorer space vehicle and a breast cancer page.

They also agreed that sometimes pornography slips through filters.

Hoquiam High senior George Craig, 17, said porn has popped up occasionally on the filtered machines he uses at Aberdeen's library.

"I go to use the printer and there's porn pages there," he said.

Freedman said the American Library Association's official position is that filtering is not effective and Internet use is better monitored by parents and programs that teach kids how to navigate the web safely. But he says the ALA also feels that local libraries should make filtering decisions based on their communities.

Of the 600 computers in New York's Westchester County library system, which Freedman directs, only one is filtered, he said.

"One of the most fundamental points is the federal government shouldn't be legislating morality," he said. "It should be a local decision and something that the local community ... the local library board decides. They're the ones that should be deciding, not the federal government.

"The federal government's track record with legislating morally hasn't been so terrific. Prohibition failed horribly. ... It's the parents' responsibility that their children have the sense and judgment to use the Internet responsibly and it's very important that the parent talk with their children about it."

Thursday, while his wife searched through the Aberdeen Library for books on bravery with their 8 - year - old son, Charles Dietrich, 33, said his kids don't use library computers. And they never use the Internet without adult supervision. But he's in favor of mandating that kids under the age of 14 have filtered access, unless their parents specify otherwise. In fact, he thinks the same rule should apply for high school kids.

"I know when we get to that age, I want to say, 'Yeah, we'll still be filtering.'" the local ship navigator said. "... Especially at the age of 14, you research more and more and more where you probably shouldn't be."

The librarians say they've made a difficult choice to walk the First Amendment tightrope. Now it's up to parents to decide.

 

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