once again, policy did not involve public

wednesday, may 05, 2004

a few weeks ago, the advisory board of the multnomah county library unanimously endorsed a public policy that defies the federal government, the u.s. supreme court and the opinion of most parents who care about their children's mental health.

as a result -- if our new library director molly raphael approves it -- young, impressionable minds can continue to get free access to hard-core pornography at any one of the system's 17 branches.  the county will also be kissing off access to federal funding at a time when library hours, services and material purchases will be cut by $1.5 million.

the county -- arguing that it doesn't want its librarians to be gatekeepers of information -- was the lead agency challenging the children's internet protection act all the way to the supreme court.  but last june, the court ruled against multnomah county library et al. v. united states of america, saying the government has an obligation to protect children from porn.

libraries were given until this july to comply or risk losing eligibility for federal aid.  so on april 13, our library board thumbed its nose at popular opinion.  it said "no thanks" to the $104,000 in federal money it had applied for during 2003-04.

and the county is planning to sidestep the controversy altogether by connecting to a different and cheaper internet service within three years.  that move would eventually make the county ineligible for federal dollars, anyway.

now, $104,000 may be small potatoes to a library system with an operating budget of $45.5 million.  but there's a greater issue at stake here.  the feds say that local communities are responsible for determining what constitutes prohibited material, and appropriate actions by schools and libraries.  that means somebody should be asking the local community what we think.

the fort vancouver regional library district, for example, held at least three public hearings and adjusted its internet policy several times in response to community concerns.  then, last month, in an attempt to respect the supreme court ruling, the southwest washington library district agreed to its strictest policy yet:  it would automatically filter internet use for all children younger than 17.  those 17 and older are given the option of disabling the filter.

"you have to figure it out for yourself," says the regional district's executive director, bruce ziegman.  "every community is different.  we listened to the public that we serve, and this seems like the appropriate response for us."

in multnomah county, though, it seems as if we prefer to make public policy decisions in secret.  as we learned with the gay-marriage issue, the public can't influence public policy if the public doesn't know about it in advance.

the library claims to stand up for intellectual freedom, but there was no process that embraced a change of mind on this issue.  no polling of library users on whether children should be allowed to access sexually explicit materials.  and no adequate warning that this issue was even going to be discussed by the 13-member advisory board.

"we can do more to make those meetings more visible to people," admits cindy gibbon, senior library manager.  the next one is 7:30 a.m. tuesday at central library downtown.

as it stands now, our children are the ones who get to decide whether to activate an optional filter each time they log on.  eventually, gibbon says, parents may be given an opportunity to put a permanent filter on their children's internet use.  until then, we're not even supposed to complain when we see young kids checking out online hotties.

"all users are asked to respect the privacy of other users," the library rules state, "and not attempt to censor or comment upon what others are viewing."

as a journalist, i'm all for freedom and access to information.  but as a parent, i have come to recognize that there are just some rights that should not be inalienable under the age of 17.  access to porn at the library is one of them.

s. renee mitchell:  503-221-8142; rmitch@news.oregonian.com; www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/renee_mitchell

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