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Editorial: Library battle of the 1st Amendment

September 12, 2010

Picture this: You take your 14-year-old child to the library to help him with a school project. All of the books needed are in the main area, and at some point, he may even need to use the computer lab.

Because the computers face outward, there’s little privacy, which is how in this scenario, the 14-year-old may be exposed to Internet pornography images or video being watched by an adult patron. Understandably, this may prompt the teen’s parent to demand something be done about it, but under the city’s library use policy, the onus largely rests with the porn viewer to make the decision.

While it may seem implausible, it’s enough of a possibility to prompt city officials to add more teeth to regulations that would give librarians the power to do more than simply ask a patron to move on to other less controversial material. Under new rules that will soon be implemented, librarians will be able to order patrons out if they do not comply with requests to stop viewing pornographic material after others have complained.

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Library officials have historically treated restrictions on what patrons can view with a certain sense of wariness, pointing to the 1st Amendment as a powerful mandate. Certainly, there is a fine line, especially when considering one person’s definition of pornographic and offensive is another’s version of expressive art. Librarians have long resisted the notion that they should be put in the position of deciding what’s what.

Given that, more liberal interpreters of pornography should fear not. These policies tend to be enforced only as a last resort where a compromise cannot be reached. And as other library directors with similar sets of rules have noted, simply knowing that the option exists tends to have a profound self-policing effect on patrons.

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