Saturday, February 02, 2008

Internet Filtering in Public Libraries

Click here to read an article in The New York Times, Westchester edition, about the Mahopac (New York) Public Library that is considering the use of Internet filters to limit access to pornography sites. The Mahopac Library is taking this step after two incidents in one month involving library public-access computers. The first incident involved a fourteen-year-old girl who communicated with an older man via chat rooms she accessed at a library computer. The second incident involved a male patron who downloaded images of child pornography while using a library computer. My colleague, Professor Bennett Gershman, is quoted in the article warning that "filters can...inadvertently curb access to areas of legitimate research that are protected under the First Amendment." I would not consider installing Internet filters at my library, but that is an easy decision to make--all of my patrons are adults, and I do not think it is right to limit what they can view any more than I believe in censoring what they can read. The decision would be a lot more complicated if my patrons included minors. As Professor Gershman says, "'Filters can remove a certain amount of information from the larger realm of knowledge that adults may want access to and that is protected under the First Amendment. How far do you go? It's a fine line.'"


Betsy McKenzie said...

Dear Marie,
You are right that it's a very different question at a law school library from a public library, where patrons are all ages, and all types. Just thinking about the various pathfinders students have done for my advanced legal research class, it's very easy to think of good examples of legitimate topics of inquiry that would certainly be blocked by the sort of filtering they would use at a public library. Issues like health law, breast or prostate cancer, body image issues, genital mutilation (AKA clitoral circumcision for women or circumcision for men) or censorship/First Amendment rights would certainly be blocked. It would be exceedingly difficult to come up with terms that would allow such legitimate research while blocking porn websites. In fact, I can imagine true research that does include accessing porn sites. Thank heavens we are not pressured to filter the way public libraries get pressured -- through funding and board pressures.

smoot82 said...

I'll admit that I currently use filtering software ( to be exact), but I can certainly see the issues at hand here. Protect the children, hinder research. Follow freedom of information ideals, children are in more danger. It would seem to me that an easy solution would be some sort of age verification. It's probably safe to say that anyone looking up such adult topics as research are at a safe to view such material. Is there no compromise available?