star-tribune

librarians settle porn case - the minneapolis library agrees to pay 12 employees $435,000, and it promises to revamp internet policies

16 august 2003

by steve brandt, staff writer, metro 1b - © bell & howell information and learning company 2003

a dozen librarians at the downtown minneapolis library have settled their lawsuit over workplace exposure to internet porn for $435,000 and an agreement by the library to make operating changes.

bob halagan, a lawyer representing the librarians, said money wasn't the point, but rather whether employee concerns are heeded. "we believe the financial settlement in this case sends a strong message to libraries around the country that they must take the concerns of their employees seriously," the librarians said friday in a joint statement.

the size of the settlement was crafted to fit within the insurance coverage limits of the city library system, rather than drawing down operating funds during a budget pinch.

the agreement includes changes or potential changes in several operating areas, chiefly the beefing up of penalties against internet violators. a violator could be suspended from all city libraries for up to one year after repeated violations, up from 90 days now. viewers of child pornography could lose library privileges permanently if that change is deemed legal by the city attorney's office.

another change includes the goal of adopting by jan. 1 a fee- based internet printing system intended to curb gratuitous printing of explicit material that librarians and patrons might find offensive.

the library didn't admit wrongdoing, but laurie savran, the trustee representing the library board in settlement negotiations, apologized during an all-day settlement conference on aug. 7.

"i apologized to the 12 plaintiffs that this happened to them and that it was so difficult for them and that we didn't address their concerns more expeditiously," savran said.

the issue arose shortly after internet access at libraries was launched in 1997. the suit alleged that computer terminals became a magnet for users hungry for explicit images "displaying virtually every kind of human sexual conduct." that year a librarian complained to then-library director mary lawson that staff members were being regularly exposed to those images and to behavior such as masturbation.

concern grew as patrons, including children, also were exposed to the graphic material, both from screens and from printouts.

when they felt lawson didn't take repeated complaints seriously, a group of librarians filed complaints with state and federal agencies, charging that they were exposed to a barrage of explicit material and that they endured hostility and threats from some internet users when they tried to discourage such use.

in 2000, library officials instituted guidelines that they said would curb abuses. under public pressure, the board adopted a policy that prohibits internet users from viewing child pornography, obscene material or showing to minors material that is harmful to them.

but librarians said that the changes didn't go far enough and that they were inconsistently enforced. the federal equal employment opportunities commission in 2001 found probable cause that federal law had been violated because of a sexually hostile work environment. halagan filed the federal lawsuit in march.

toward resolution

two factors led to the settlement, halagan said. one was the encouragement of federal magistrate judge jonathan lebedoff. moreover, halagan said, new library director kit hadley displayed a commitment to resolving the issue that librarians felt lawson had lacked.

"i think their respect for her made it easier for them to agree to the terms of the agreement," halagan said.

although 11 women and one man were named as plaintiffs, 47 downtown library workers signed a letter to the editor in 2000 saying that library trustees and lawson hadn't responded to their concerns. they said the issue wasn't intellectual freedom but whether obscene material should be publicly displayed.

a library board statement friday said that the issue arose because it tried to strike a balance between allowing public access to lawful materials and protecting workers and cardholders from exposure to offensive items. it said the board regretted that it didn't respond sooner to the issues raised by internet access.

the plaintiffs' statement on the settlement blamed positions taken by the american library association in favor of access to information by library users for their library's resistance to their complaints. the association did not respond friday to that blame.

public exposure

one plaintiff, wendy adamson, said the issues raised by internet images are different from traditional debates over books that some consider racy, such as "lady chatterley's lover." that's because of the public exposure of the content through computer screens and printouts.

but eugene volokh, a law professor at the university of california, los angeles, said the outcome represents a worrisome abridgement of first amendment free speech by workplace law. and if material sexually offensive to librarians is controlled, what about racially and religiously offensive internet material that librarians might find offensive?

volokh, who has studied the minneapolis case for a book on cyberlaw, said the settlement deprives those seeking open access to library materials of their day in court.

the settlement also requires the library board to discuss the pros and cons of internet filters with employees, who are divided on the issue. the u.s. supreme court ruled in june that libraries receiving federal funds must install anti-pornography filters on internet terminals, a step opposed by a majority of minneapolis library trustees.

and the settlement commits the library system to trying to maintain its current security workers, who librarians use as backup when enforcing internet restrictions.

steve brandt is at 612-673-4438 or sbrandt@startribune.com.

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