Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

LA Times asks: “Porn in the library – censorship vs. decency?”

The LA Times, spurred by a November report of a homeless man arrested for masturbating in a library while looking at Internet porn, asks whether it’s legitimate to censor pornography in libraries.  Though a number of commenters were–as is typical–quick to shout “of course!”, the Times actually makes an important case:

“Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was once considered pornography, not just unsuitable for a library but illegal to sell in some countries a little more than half a century ago. Banning materials from the library because the majority of people find them distasteful is a dicey step. What might the majority find unsuitable next? Something that you want to read, perhaps? Yet all patrons to the library should be able to search for books and videos without patently offensive material shining across the room at them.

Whose rights matter more?

Now, thanks to the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), K-12 schools as well as libraries that accept certain federal funding are required to have an Internet safety policy in place, which includes blocking obscene content, as well as content deemed ‘harmful to minors.’  And yet, the law also provides that a school or library may ‘disable the the technology protection measure concerned, during use by an adult, to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purpose,’ making the full range of Internet content available to adults in libraries. Libraries that don’t receive funding aren’t bound to CIPA, and I’m not sure the extent to which those libraries censor (or not).  The Times, then, is asking whether library Internet censorship (of lewd content) should become standard.

Here’s my take, in a word: No.  I have no real problem with CIPA, as it offers provisions for adults to access all content.  And in this particular case, of what I assume to involve a library not bound by CIPA, the masturbating library patron is already committing a crime, meaning that the individual–not the content–is the real problem.

It’s not that I think watching porn in a library is appropriate (to each their own, but I’m going to go with “no” on that question), but that I don’t believe there to be a filtering tool out there in the world that would censor pornography without having overreaching effects.  As the Times rightly points out, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was once considered pornographic; therefore, where would the line be drawn?  Would images of nude adults be blocked too?  Surely, that’s censorship.  What about content that provides sexual education?  Kids who grow up with parents who refuse to talk about sex need access to that kind of content in public libraries.

In other words, if someone could build a tool that would effectively block hardcore pornography in public libraries without having the effect of overblocking, I’d be willing to have this discussion.  Until then, no way.

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2 Comments

  1. They tried to abuse the “OMG child abuse!” horkhorse in Germany, too. Do not get yourself fooled: Protecting children is not their prime intention. German police didn’t even try to contact US providers in time to have child abuse content erased, yet they went for the internet torch.

    Schools subject to CIPA are required to adopt and enforce a policy to monitor online activities of minors. That’s Soviet Block style surveillance, psychological warfare against children! Minors must be guided and teached, not surveilled!

    Implementing “the safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms and other forms of direct electronic communications” equals invasion of communication between children and parents by big brother, too!
    And who’s going to set the standard of what’s appropriate within a parent-child conversation?
    Wake up, America!

    > It’s not that I think watching porn in a library is appropriate

    If there’s one place it should be appropriate to have it watched it’s the libraries – conceptually it always must be possible to do research even on the most cruel things!

    > if someone could build a tool

    No such thing is going to happen. Go talk to some informed IT folks. Organized crime always will find ways to circumvent blocking methods. Citizens will have to pay the price.

    And because there won’t be such thing one can not avoid the discussion. It is neccessary to speak out against censorship!

    • Thanks for your comment – and don’t worry, I’m under no illusions that such a tool could be built, that’s precisely my point :)

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