Ruling means no more library Web porn
Access to Web porn is on its way out of Pittsburgh-area libraries after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upheld a requirement to use Internet filters.
The controversial ruling represents a marked change in how local libraries handle Internet access.
At most of the 45 libraries in Allegheny County, computers are unfiltered and allow unfettered access to any Web site. Librarians patrol public computers and notify patrons if a site violates library policy. Penn Hills has filters on about half of its public computers. Northland Public Library in McCandless uses filters on computers in the children's section only.
"I have been to various libraries, and one time I looked over my shoulder and saw an older man accessing a (pornographic) Web site. I couldn't do anything about it but move to a different computer," said Elizabeth Brawdy, of Bethel Park, a patron at the Bethel Park Library.
Last week's ruling upheld the federal Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000. The law requires public libraries that accept federal funds to use filters to screen out Web pornography.
Librarians challenged the law as a violation of free speech. The American Library Association fought the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The regulations were put on hold while the case was pending. Federal officials have yet to announce a deadline for compliance.
"This ruling really has placed a huge burden on libraries to comply with the law or lose the money," said Deborah Coldwell-Stone, deputy director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association.
Officials at the Allegheny County Library Association and its partner, eiNetwork, said they have no choice but to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. Noncompliance would cost local libraries about $400,000 in federal money.
The eiNetwork, the nonprofit organization that provides Internet service to all county libraries, is searching for software that will filter sites on the system's server.
Federal money pays for about 60 percent of the $650,000 to $700,000 cost of providing Internet access to all county libraries, said Rebecca Serey, director of the eiNetwork.
"We must comply because we don't have any other funding sources, particularly in this tight economy," Serey said.
Serey cautioned that filters are not foolproof.
"The concerns about the software are legitimate," Serey said. "The people that have pornography for viewing are very sneaky and find a way to get around it. In some cases, pornography sneaks through. In other cases, filters block things that are not pornographic but are quite legitimate."
Serey said filters could screen out research on topics such as breast cancer because software typically searches for key words.
Serey said she is unsure of the cost and timetable for installing the filtering software.
The Supreme Court ruled that filters are not objectionable, in part because they could be dismantled on request. The network is searching for a way for librarians to dismantle the filter at a patron's request, although many fear patrons would be reluctant to ask.
Mt. Lebanon Public Library director Cynthia Richey decried the court's decision.
"It removes responsibility for local communities to make the decision of how to manage activities in their libraries. Also, it removes responsibility from parents to decide what their kids have access to in a library," Richey said.
None of Mt. Lebanon library's 50 public computers has filters.
Like many local libraries, the Joseph F. Markosek Plum Borough Community Library has a policy prohibiting access to porn sites, but none of its eight public computers has a filter to block viewing of pages.
"The policy has been effective," said Marilyn Klingensmith, Plum library interim director. "In general, it works. We've had a couple of minor instances."
Suzanne Jacobs, 46, of Plum, who brings her two young daughters to the library, supports filtering software.
"I am constantly watching over my children," Jacobs said. "This is just another watch."
Officials at Northland Public Library are reviewing the Supreme Court ruling before making a decision on filters.
"From what we understand, it gives Congress the authority to mandate that it's done, not that we do it," said Northland library spokesman Frank Gilbert.
It is unclear if libraries that opt against filters would remain in the countywide eiNetwork.
"I understand about (filtering) the children's. Adults I have a problem with. It's an infringement of public information," said Penn Hills Library director Ed Mandell. Penn Hills Library has filters on nine of its 19 public computers.
"I don't want my tax dollars used so someone can look at pornography," Angela Quinn, 34, of Penn Hills, said as she sat at a filtered computer.
Library patron Laine Conti, of Hampton, also supports the installation of filters.
"I think it's a good idea," Conti said. "I would think that most people who want to look at those sites aren't going to want to do it in a public library."