Graphic material pretty public at library

Published 11:02 am Wednesday, July 13, 2016

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

A Smithfield mother was appalled recently when she noticed the man next to her at the Smithfield Library was viewing explicitly pornographic material on a public computer.

When Jessica Leitch complained to the library manager, she was told there are filters on the system to block obscene material, but there was little else that could be done.

Leitch, who was there with her husband and children, was upset.{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

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“This is not at all appropriate. Placing our youth in such a situation. What if this man is a sexual predator and this is just feeding his habit,” she wrote in an email.

Efforts to reach Blackwater Regional Library Executive Director Jenny Bailey were unsuccessful.  

According to the code of Virginia, it’s up to local library boards to devise a policy for internet usage on its public libraries. 

Installing filters is one way to limit access, according to the code. The law prohibits the use of public library computers to access child pornography.

Virginia law also prohibits library computers from being used to inappropriately display materials harmful to juveniles, and which includes anything sexual in nature or is offensive to the prevailing standards of the community.

The filters allowed by the state do not cover pornography in general, but only materials that are legally defined as obscene, said Jan Hathcock, spokesperson for the Library of Virginia.

“Unfortunately, what some consider pornography is protected speech,” she said.

The Blackwater Regional Library has policy on internet usage that is available on its website, and addresses pornography and obscene materials.

Patrons that violate the policy could have their library privileges revoked. 

Leitch noticed that children sitting at the next computer could have seen the material. She was allowed to move to another computer.

“When I had switched computers, I guess this made the man feel uncomfortable to where he exited the library a few minutes later,” she said.

Smithfield Library Manager Ben Neal said it’s been a non-issue 99.9 percent of the time and staff rarely hears complaints.

“That’s been true for most of the eight-plus years I’ve been working in public libraries,” he said.

The Smithfield Library has several public computers located to the right of the circulation desk for general use, as well as terminals available for teens and children in the rear of the library. The monitors are upright and can easily be viewed.

Some libraries have installed covers to prevent anyone other than the user from seeing what is on the screen.

Haley Halverson with the National Center on Sexual Exploitation said Leitch’s experience is not unique.

“Libraries are supposed to be places for the community to come together and learn, not a place that fosters sexual exploitation. A surprising number of schools and public libraries do not have pornography filtering software and a much larger number employ ineffective filtering software that can be bypassed to access pornography. This is unacceptable,” she said.

Halverson advises concerned residents to visit the Center’s “Safe Schools Safe Libraries” site at where they can obtain information for improving filtering devices in schools and libraries.

James LaRue, director of intellectual freedom with the American Library Association, said there is no definitive legal definition of what is pornography, and it can mean different things to different people.

Librarians are there to uphold the law, but two aspects of it are tricky — what is obscenity and what is harmful to minors?, said LaRue.

Librarians believe the terminology is unclear and difficult to identify, he said.

Therefore, if a librarian gets a complaint, they observe the person, and if necessary, take action, LaRue said.

LaRue believes monitor screens are a good solution, but has more difficulty with filters.

Private companies provide the filters, but don’t say how they are set up, he said.

Sometimes it blocks too much and even the strongest filter can’t block everything, he said.

“There is no perfect solution to the problem,” LaRue said and gave a personal example of when he was a librarian in Colorado.

Someone complained about a man looking at a particular image of a male body part. Instead of being pornographic, the man was scheduled for a vasectomy and was looking medical information.

Not everyone has access to a computer at home, he said.

The debate over allowing access to pornography is considered a First Amendment issue and was the subject of a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The court upheld the Federal Children’s Internet Protection Act, and overturned an earlier ruling that prevented the law from taking effect in libraries. The court concluded that CIPA did not violate the First Amendment because libraries can disable filters for adult patrons who request it.

CIPA was passed in 2000 and required libraries to install filtering devices to protect children from obscenity, pornography and other harmful materials, but allows the filters to be disabled upon request by an adult. CIPA is tied to federal funding.

Prior to CIPA, the U.S. Supreme Court in Miller vs. California (1973) determined that obscenity is that which is utterly without socially redeeming value and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Under that ruling, hard core pornography is not protected under the First Amendment at all, Halverson said. {/mprestriction}