Should we allow porn in libraries?

We talk to librarians who disagree on whether smut viewing is a defensible First Amendment right

Published April 29, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

If you found this article while searching for porn that fetishizes bookish bespectacled women, you're going to be sorely disappointed. In this rare case, we're talking about porn in libraries, not librarians in porn. That's because earlier this week, the Los Angeles City Council voted against filtering out all porn on library computers. Just the day before, the Brooklyn Public Library publicly defended patrons' right to watch any legal adult content of their choosing. The first case was prompted by an incident in which kids were exposed to pornography being watched by an adult on a library computer; and the second followed a physical altercation between a man watching porn on a library computer and another man waiting to use said computer.

A little background: The 2000 Children's Internet Protection Act requires libraries receiving federal assistance to filter out obscenity, child pornography and material that is harmful to minors, but -- this is key, so take note -- it also requires librarians to abide by adults' requests for the filtering software to be turned off to "enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purpose"). The American Library Association, with the help of the ACLU, challenged the law, arguing that it violated First Amendment rights -- but the Supreme Court ultimately decided that it did not, since adults could ask to have sites unblocked. But what the case didn't definitively answer was whether adults should be allowed to watch hardcore porn in the library -- and so here we are.

While the ALA has unsurprisingly fallen on the anti-filtering side of this debate, and librarians in general are especially attuned to threats of censorship, there is by no means a consensus on the answer to this question. Christian Zabriskie, the founder of the advocacy group Urban Librarians Unite, told me, "I personally think that this is a poor decision on the part of these libraries that are going this route. While they may be protecting the First Amendment rights of some patrons [the ones looking at porn], they are ignoring the rights of other patrons," say, the right to bring your children to the library without concern that they will be exposed to porn while they are working on a term paper. Some libraries have addressed this concern with privacy screens or by moving computers to less-trafficked areas.

Shannon McNeill, a librarian outside Pittsburgh, supports filtering but said, "Libraries are pretty liberal with the filters and there really does need to be a line drawn with what is appropriate for the sake of children and other people using the library." Complicating things is that "there are a lot of different ways to get around it," she said, citing the men she's seen using library computers to watch sexy workout videos.

Jessamyn West, a librarian and a moderator on MetaFilter, wrote in an email, "My personal perspective is that our role is to provide people with access to information that they can use for whatever purpose they want, whether that's to become a better citizen, do homework, or just for entertainment." She added: "I think the U.S. is a little hung up on sexuality and policing other people's sexual expression." She also pointed out in a MetaFilter thread on the subject that it's questionable whether seeing two people having sex is any more traumatizing to a child than the nonsexual graphic images easily accessible online (and off, for that matter) -- like photos of the carnage of war.

While librarians differ on how porn-viewing patrons should be dealt with, many are in agreement that the issue has been blown out of proportion by the media. McNeill says that at her library they have to ask someone "to please 'not look at questionable material' at least once a month." The last person she had to confront was a man in his early 20s who was taking pictures of Internet porn with his cellphone. Similarly, Zabriskie said, "In more than a dozen years as a public librarian I have thrown probably about five guys out of the library for watching porn." He continued: "This 'porn in the library' thing is being made out to be an epidemic. It is not. The epidemic is the loss of libraries, staff and collections in our new budget realities."

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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Libraries And Librarians Pornography