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ala policies make a librarian's life difficult

1 may 2005

dear judge mary horn,

i write this letter in support of your decision to cut county funding to libraries if they do not install internet filters as reported in the dallas morning news, "jacquielynn floyd: p()rn fear frazzles libraries," april 29, 2005, sharedcontent/ dws/ dn/ localnews/ columnists/ all/ stories/ 043005dnmetfloyd.5da60a86.html (reproduced below).  that article contains so much misinformation that i felt compelled to provide a viewpoint based on truth.

as soon as i read "other people's lofty ideals and smug political grandstanding seem to be making the librarian life awfully difficult these days," i know to get ready for a big snow job.  the author goes on to imply that forcing a library to use internet filters is "political grandstanding."  then, after mentioning your decision to "cut" county funding, she says her "head is whirling like a centrifuge."

the truth is the american library association's [ala] policies make a librarian's life difficult.  where the supreme court of the united states decides that internet filters were legal, but the losing party, the ala, advises libraries to defy the case, i would think that would make a librarian's life difficult.  should they follow the law of the land and use filters, or should they follow the ala and not use them because they fear the ala more than the us supreme court?

the ala says, "despite the 2003 u.s. supreme court ruling on the children's internet protection act (cipa), which permits the government to require libraries that receive certain kinds of federal funding to install filters, ala policy is unchanged:  ala does not recommend the use in libraries of filtering technology that blocks constitutionally protected information."  fn1  lest anyone think the ala only makes recommendations but local libraries think for themselves, the aclu of rhode island provides us with this quote from a public library director: "[we've had] no comments from patrons [about the new internet filters].  librarians opposed because of american library association's library bill of rights tenet "free and equal access to information," but as of now, the staff has not been encumbered by filters.'"  fn2  from these two quotes, we see the ala defies the law of the land, local public libraries follow the ala policies, and, by the way, neither patrons nor staff are complaining about cipa-complaint internet filters.

there is another way the ala "makes the librarian life awfully difficult these days."  the ala believes that children should not be prevented from seeing anything.  in their so-called "library bill of rights" they think it would be "age" discrimination to do that, so children may see p()rn.  fn3, fn3a  that is why, for example, a library administration reprimanded a security guard for advising a six year old boy not to view p()rnography on an internet computer.  fn4  no wonder a librarian's head might "whirl like a centrifuge."  should they stop the child from viewing p()rn or should they not risk endangering their job?

here's a recent example.  just last week or so, a library board voted to remove the reference to "age" from the portion of the "library bill of rights" that it will enforce: "the library association guidelines stripped the library board of the ability to safeguard children from objectionable material, such as p()rnography."  fn5  sadly, the town government is so inebriated with ala poison that it reacted by promising to review the "motivations" of people before allowing them to join the library board of trustees.  fn6  therefore, the ala itself causes librarians to feel the need to defy the law or face ala-generated consequences.  the author's implication that you are causing the problems is patently false.

the author is misleading in another way.  she says "with filtered internet, you risk disastrous lawsuits" because "a few patrons said their first amendment rights were being violated, and they threatened to sue."  the author makes no mentioned of the truth in this regard.  the truth is cipa-compliant filters and policies guarantee any suit based on first amendment rights would be frivolous or intended for harassment purposes only.  why?  the supreme court of the united states said so.  in us v. ala, the court held, "[p]ublic libraries' use of internet filtering software does not violate their patrons' first amendment rights...."  fn7  therefore, do not feel threatened by people trying to mislead you about public library internet filters and first amendment rights.  there is no need to feel "terrified of getting caught up in a long legal fight [the town] couldn't afford."

the author then pulls out the trump card in her web of deception: the library director steeped in ala misinformation.  she quotes the library director as if she has the final say on the issue: library filters are "expensive," they "don't work," they are like "putting a bucket over your head," they block breast cancer sites and more, the patrons were embarrassed or "mortified" and the computers had to be rebooted.  the misinformation goes on.  apparently high school students all know how to evade the filters, all you need is a good usage policy that everyone agrees to follow, computers should be turned to be visible to the employees, and warnings should be posted that p()rn is "off-limits."  then the author makes the most laughable supposition, that she "got the sense that if she caught you looking at dirty pictures on the library computers, she'd call the cops and chase you out to the parking lot."

the truth is that the ala advises librarians how to mislead people in the exact way this librarian (and this reporter) is misleading the public now.  fn8, fn8a

regarding turning the computers to be seen by the library staff, the truth is the ala recommends not monitoring such activity: "general monitoring by staff of patron content or use of library materials and resources in any format is inappropriate in all instances with the exception of observation for the purposes of protecting library property." fn9

regarding calling the police if illegal activity is observed, the ala says, "as for obscenity and child p()rnography, prosecutors and police have adequate tools to enforce criminal laws.  libraries are not a component of law enforcement efforts...."  fn10

regarding library filters not working, being too expensive, blocking breast cancer sites, etc., this is simply not true, maybe in the past, but not now.  now, even the aclu of rhode island has unwittingly reported few problems with cipa-compliant filters while complaining the exact opposite.  fn11  and i report about a library director willing to stand against the ala to say cipa-compliant internet filters are working just fine and do not block breast cancer sites, etc.  fn12  undoubtedly others have found the ala's arguments are based on old information as well, just as the aclu of rhode island's freshly-released report refers to a four-year-old article about web sites being overblocked.  even in your own community there where apparently problems with the filters in the past.  well times have changed.  the technology has greatly improved and the law says filtering is legal.

in summary, the reporter has misrepresented the facts about internet filters.  it is the ala's policy of defiance of the law that should be defied itself, not your efforts on behalf of the citizens.  it is the reporter who will have to "cope with the reality" that you are correct and the library director has misled her and the citizens she supposedly serves.  please follow through on your reported statements; you are in full compliance with the law and you are helping to protect your community from possible crimes that occur regularly in unfiltered or partially-filtered public libraries nationwide.


ps  media:  please consider publishing this letter in the paper as a response to the article it discusses.  ironically, to bypass filters, i changed spellings to p()rn.  please change it back to the correct spellings for publication, if any.  thank you.

cc  texas governor perry under separate cover.

jacquielynn floyd:
porn fear frazzles libraries

08:58 pm cdt on friday, april 29, 2005

you know, i always thought it might be pleasant to be a librarian, to spend all day in a peaceful place surrounded by books, to light a little lamp of knowledge against the void of ignorance.

on second thought, though, the job might make me run screaming and flailing into the street. other people's lofty ideals and smug political grandstanding seem to be making the librarian life awfully difficult these days.

let us review the tortured recent history of the little public library in the denton county town of pilot point, where you could get whiplash trying to keep up with the shouting over internet access.

the pilot point library, which serves not just the town but the surrounding county, had computers with unfiltered internet access until about six years ago.

then the town's council demanded that the computers be filtered to block out pornographic web sites. after 18 months with the filtered computers, a few patrons said their first amendment rights were being violated, and they threatened to sue.

the town, terrified of getting caught up in a long legal fight it couldn't afford, took the advice of its attorney to discontinue internet access altogether.

this year, the texas state library and archive commission warned that libraries without internet service will lose state support.

so three days ago, pilot point turned the computers back on.

now denton county judge mary horn says that if pilot point and other area libraries don't restore their filters, she'll work to cut their county funding.

let's review: with filtered internet, you risk disastrous lawsuits. without internet filters, you lose funding you desperately need. if you pull the plug altogether, the state will cut you off. my head is whirling like a centrifuge.

it's mighty easy to take a political position here, but not so easy to cope with the practical fallout.

easy, for instance, to nod in earnest agreement when ms. horn flatly said: "i don't want taxpayer-provided porn."

well, that's pretty unassailable high ground. to disagree makes it sound like you're in favor of drooling perverts camping out at the public library, gazing hungrily at filthy videos and bizarre sex acts while little children are working on their book reports nearby.

the reality isn't so simple. the filters create more problems then they solve, said pilot point library director phyllis tillery.

"they're expensive, and they don't work," ms. tillery said.

people think "porn filters" work like putting on a pair of sunglasses to screen out the glare and harmful rays. in reality, it's more like putting a bucket over your head.

libraries have found that filters for which they paid many thousands of dollars block access to all kinds of information.

the software pilot point previously used caused the computers to flash a warning and lock up when people tried to access a public list of registered sex offenders; when they tried to access government employment forms that asked for the applicant's "sex"; when women sought information about breast cancer; when the mother of a rape victim tried to research treatment options.

embarrassed patrons would have to get a librarian to reboot the computer every time.

"they'd be saying, 'honestly, i didn't do anything wrong,' " ms. tillery said. a few were so mortified they left and didn't come back.

about the only people who figured out how to get around the filters, ms. tillery said, were the determined high school kids they were supposed to protect.

"i think that if you use some common sense and you have a good policy, you'll be fine," she said.

instead of filters, she thinks libraries should put the computers where they're visible to employees and post rules warning that pornography is off-limits.

makes sense to me.

about five minutes into the conversation with ms. tillery, i got the sense that if she caught you looking at dirty pictures on the library computer, she'd call the cops and chase you out to the parking lot.

it's easy to have an opinion in this debate. it's a lot harder to cope with the reality.


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