- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

A cultural war is raging inside America's libraries.

Conservative groups warn that unrestricted access to Internet indecency in the nation's public schools and libraries threatens to create virtual sanctuaries of smut across the land.

"There is no constitutional right to view this kind of obscenity in public places like our towns' libraries," says Janet LaRue, senior legal studies director at the Family Research Council (FRC).

But the American Library Association says patrons have a right to view pornographic material.

"Protecting children from Internet porn would be best accomplished at the local level, and not through federal regulation," says ALA spokeswoman Emily Sheketoff.

At issue are incidents like those chronicled in a recent study commissioned by the FRC, titled "Dangerous Access."

The report details graphic incidents in cities such as Vancouver, Wash., where the staff of the city's public library has had to clean semen off the restroom walls after the Internet "research" sessions of certain library patrons.

Or when police were summoned to a public library in Phoenix after a 4-year-old boy was sexually propositioned in the bathroom by a 13-year old after the teen admittedly engaged in an on-line chat with pedophiles.

"I have seen cases where pedophiles on the Internet use the library to talk with children and eventually lure them to have a face-to-face meeting," says Julie Posey, director of the watchdog group PedoWatch. "These children are then molested, their photos taken and [the children] further exploited when he sends the child's pictures to masses on the Internet."

David Burt, the former Lake Oswego, Ore., librarian who authored the report, sent Freedom of Information Act requests to nearly every public library system in America and worked with FRC staffers to gather the data.

Among the 27 percent of libraries that responded to the requests, Mr. Burt was able to document 2,062 reported incidents over the previous year involving the viewing of Internet porn in libraries.

These included five cases of attempted molestation, 106 cases of adults exposing children to pornography and 472 cases of children accessing porn.

The total number of incidents each year was extrapolated to be between 400,000 and 2 million per year nationwide, says Mr. Burt, who has since left his library post to work at a software-filtering company.

Not only do some libraries allow conditions that lead to this illegal activity, but they actually inform library staff they must tolerate it, Mr. Burt says. He cites an incident at a public library in Sonoma, Calif., where a staff librarian complained to his supervisor about three men on his shift who downloaded child porn on library computers.

The supervisor responded there was "nothing we can do about it."

"The best thing for staff is to ignore it," he was told.

"The anonymous environment of the public library offers the ideal place to access this sea of pornography," says Mr. Burt.

"Children who want to avoid supervised access to the Internet at home and school, transients without any other access to Internet pornography, pedophiles wishing to download illegal child pornography and sexual perpetrators wishing to expose others to pornography would all be attracted to a public library to obtain free access to the Internet," says Mr. Burt.

With an estimated 11 million children having access to the Internet and more than half of the nation's classrooms connected to the World Wide Web, 82 percent of parents across the nation are concerned their children will access unsuitable material on the Net, according to the FRC.

Fifty-eight percent of parents without Web access at home say they rely upon schools and libraries to provide safe Internet access, says the FRC.

But it's no secret that children often are lured to point their mouse toward the estimated 72,000 to 100,000 sexually explicit sites on the Internet.

Of approximately 3,900 new sites that go up every day, at least 85 percent of those sell commercial pornography, making the adult-entertainment sector of the Internet the third-largest sector of sales on the Net: an estimated $1 billion by the end of 1999.

A new law slated to take effect April 20 may change all this. The Children's Internet Protection Act would require schools and libraries that receive federal aid for Web access (called an E-rate) to certify that filtering or blocking technology is in place on computers to block access to illegal pornography, child pornography and material harmful to minors.

The legislation, signed into law by President Clinton on Dec. 21, has found critics in the academic and research communities, and the ALA has pledged to file suit to prevent its enforcement.

"This is an infringement of our First Amendment protections," Miss Sheketoff says. "It filters out constitutionally protected information and gives parents a false sense of security."

A source close to the lawsuit says a handful of other educational, political and tech-industry trade groups will oppose the new law in parallel lawsuits.

But proponents of the law argue that blocking technology has evolved, and both server-based and user-based technology are highly effective at blocking pornographic material while allowing for the selection of legitimate research materials.

At a July 20 hearing last year, Crystal Roberts of the Family Research Council testified to the Commission on Child On-Line Protection that libraries that do employ blocking technology on their Internet computers have encountered little or no patron dissatisfaction with it.

"In the event that a patron's attempt to access a legitimate research page is thwarted by an incorrect blocking instruction, that patron need only file a request with the librarian on duty to have the page unblocked. Such requests are usually complied with within minutes of having been registered," she told the panel.

Most libraries already have an Internet policy designed to discourage, if not outright prohibit X-rated browsing at Internet terminals. These policies range from terse statements about the library's not being responsible for its patrons' Web activities, to detailed rules of behavior.

A common policy is the "tap on the shoulder" policy, where library staff monitors usage and gives a tap on the shoulder to anyone seen viewing pornography, says Mr. Burt.

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving the challenge of a separate statute, the Child Pornography Prevention Act, that expanded a long-standing ban on child porn to include images made by altering benign pictures of a child into a depiction of the child engaged in sex.

A federal judge upheld the law, but it was overturned by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said the law violated the Constitution.

But, "If a 7-Eleven were to stock this material for children or others to buy, they'd be prosecuted," said Janet LaRue, senior legal studies director at the FRC.

The Supreme Court has previously ruled that the "prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of children" is of "surpassing importance" to the U.S. government. The court has upheld federal and state laws protecting minors from exposure to print or broadcast pornography.

"Congress has broad national powers to put restrictions on federal money," Miss LaRue says, "and Internet filtering is a reasonable measure we can all live with."

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