Lawmakers in at least two states this year will consider bills that would punish libraries for making pornography available to children via the web.
A Greenville, S.C., lawmaker has filed a bill that would make public libraries in the state criminally liable if they allow children to view pornography on the internet. And the Utah House Public Utilities and Technology Committee has unanimously approved a bill that would block state funding to any public library that does not restrict minors from accessing obscene material.
South Carolina Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, said on Jan. 26 that his bill would remove the legal protection libraries have under a 1991 state law that prohibits giving minors access to pornography. Under Fair’s bill, parents whose children are exposed to pornography at the library could file an incident report with a prosecutor, who would then decide whether to bring an indictment, he said.
“Since too many public libraries have been unwilling to respond to legitimate concerns of the communities they serve, libraries funded by those communities should not enjoy special protection under the law,” Fair said in a news release.
The bill would apply only to public libraries and not to public school or college libraries, Fair said. Still, the proposed legislation has some educators worried because it might set a disturbing precedent.
Pat Scales, a Greenville school librarian for 30 years and member of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, called the move “chilling.” “I just don’t know how you can hold an institution responsible for something that no one can control,” Scales told The Greenville News. “It doesn’t matter if you put 100 software filters on there. You can still get around them if you want to.”
Fair’s bill comes after weeks of complaints of easy access to pornography at the Greenville County Library. He said if his bill is successful and libraries fail to comply, he would “take a serious look” at cutting state funds for internet installation in public libraries.
On Jan. 24, the Greenville County Library board adopted guidelines requiring that children under 12 have a parent present when they use the internet, and that children ages 12 to 17 have written permission. But the board voted against installing internet filters.
Michael Green, a board member who supported using filters, said he supports Fair’s bill but realizes it’s a long shot.
“I think every library should filter their internet access for children under 18,” Green said. “There’s no reason that children should be seeing anything pornographic or obscene or anything along those lines.”
The sponsor of the Utah bill, Rep. Marlon Snow, R-Orem, said his bill also is intended to ensure that children are not viewing obscene material, intentionally or unintentionally, at the public library.
Amy Owen of the state Library Division said the internet creates challenges for librarians, especially when balancing First Amendment rights to information and expression against community standards.
Owen said Snow’s bill respects the library’s right to provide information while asking that steps be taken to protect children. She said most libraries in Utah already have filter software, and if they don’t, they can have the state’s EdNet computer system serve as a filter.
Owen acknowledged that filters could block access to a site students legitimately need to use, such as art collections with nude paintings or health-related sites. But there are ways to work around that problem, she said.
“Because of the First Amendment concerns, some libraries have a number of unfiltered terminals for research, or a student can ask a librarian to disable the filter for legitimate research purposes,” Owen said.
Chris Hansen, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he was unfamiliar with the bills in question. But he said they could raise serious constitutional issues if they hold libraries responsible for their patrons’ actions online.
“The notion that there is filtering software out there that will do what these legislators want it to do is ludicrous,” Hansen said. “Without exception, they overblock [some sites] and underblock [others].”
South Carolina State House Network
American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee
Utah State Legislature
American Civil Liberties Union