Court ruling raises questions

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Public libraries such as the Andalusia Public Library have been given a simple choice by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Either take steps to block undesirable materials from their computers or face the possibility of losing federal funding.

The nation's highest court ruled in a 6-3 vote Monday that Congress can force public libraries to equip their computers with anti-pornography filters or surrender federal money.

Four justices said the law was constitutional, with the court describing pornography in libraries as a serious problem. Two other justices said the ruling was allowable, as long as libraries disable the filters for patrons who ask.

Asked about the ruling, Andalusia Public Library Director Karin Taylor said the ruling was not unexpected.

"I was not really surprised because libraries have traditionally excluded pornography from their collection to begin with and so it didn't really seem unreasonable

for the Supreme Court to say that (pornography) was not a constitutionally protected thing," said Taylor. "I was really looking toward them making that ruling."

Taylor said, however, the method of filtering the computers has yet to be determined.

"They haven't clarified just exactly what they mean by the word filtering," said Taylor. "Filtering can actually be a server or software or a firewall, or it can also be the fact that I can look over to (the computer area) and see what is on them. We really haven't gotten that point clarified yet and the Alabama Public Library Service is working on that to get us more information and also to decide if we do have to have software filters, what filtering companies will use the best judgment as to what they will filter. Sometimes filters block constitutionally protected speech and we don't want that to happen."

Another question, said Taylor, would involve how the filtering equipment would be paid for.

"There are some free filters out there and you really have to get into how good a filtering company is, and what is their criteria for filtering," said Taylor. "Sometimes they don't use the constitutionally protected speech criteria and they will ban something just because it might have the word sex in it. I do have a problem with, for instance, if a person wants to come in and do research on infertility or a research paper on venereal disease and they can't get into sites that have constitutionally protected speech."

Taylor said she is frankly disappointed in the ruling.

"I am disappointed in the ruling because I don't believe in censorship," said Taylor. "I believe each library should have the option of being able to decide how they are going to limit that Internet access to materials. We are a small library and we don't have a problem (with computer users viewing pornographic sites) at all. We have developed an Internet acceptable use policy and it clearly states that computer users are not allowed to do any type of illegal activity involving accessing material deemed obscene. We have people read (the library's policy) and sign it and we let them know we monitor. I don't want a child to see something that's inappropriate and we are here to protect children and get out information. We are not here to promote any pornography."

Taylor said she would basically like to see the ruling modified to allow each state to determine whether there is a problem in its libraries and to determine if there is indeed a need for filtering.

"I can see if you were in the New York Public Library, where you couldn't monitor the library, I can see where they would have to implement the ruling," said Taylor. "Maybe you would just need to determine the need on a library by library level. Everybody has different problems and we don't have the problems that a lot of libraries evidently do have."

Funding is an issue which is already a volatile one in the state, with issues such as Gov. Bob Riley's tax plan due for a public vote later this year and schools also facing difficult financial issues, and Taylor said it could be difficult for libraries in Alabama

if they opted to not abide by the Supreme Court ruling.

"We have been told that we may be looking at a 25 percent reduction in state aid (even if computers are filtered)," said Taylor, who said libraries have not been given a deadline to filter their computers. "That is really kind of scary because we buy our books with state aid that is not a good prospect to look at. I really do believe, though, that if the federal government demands we do need software for filtering that they provide the funds for us to do so and provide the people to look into what companies meet the best criteria for protecting constitutional speech. I will do what I have to do to keep our funding and it is more important to me that our library continues to grow. The only way I can do that is for us to be able to get some federal funding."

Opp Public Library Director Sharon Godwin said her library is in a wait-and-see mode about the ruling.

"We have been waiting for information about the ruling from the state library association," said Godwin. "We have been told to redirect any questions about it to the director of that association and many libraries in the state are confused about it. We do not have our Internet access due to government funding, but we are tied to the (LBW Jr. College MacArthur Campus). We don't know if we would be blocked for funding or if just those libraries who are getting their Internet access through government money.

For free filtering software go to: