The use of web filters in libraries has been in the headlines on many occasions in recent months. There has been much debate over the extent to which libraries should allow patrons to exercise their First Amendment freedoms and whether Internet access should be controlled.

Many libraries in the United States choose not to implement web filters to control the content that can be accessed on their computers, instead they tackle the problem of inappropriate website access by posting acceptable usage guidelines on walls next to computers.

However, patrons of libraries can have very different views of what constitutes acceptable use. Many users of library computers take advantage of the lack of Internet policing and use the computers to view hardcore pornography.

While this is every American’s right under the First Amendment, it can potentially cause distress to other users of libraries. Libraries are visited by people of all ages including children. It is therefore possible that children may accidentally view highly inappropriate material on other users’ screens.

Libraries that apply for government discounts under the e-rate program are required to comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The legislation, which went into effect on April 20, 2001, requires schools and libraries to implement controls to restrict Internet access and prevent the viewing of obscene images, child pornography, and other imagery that is harmful to minors. However, it is only mandatory for libraries to comply with CIPA regulations if they choose to take advantage of e-rate discounts. Many libraries do not.

A recent article in DNA Info has highlighted the extent to which library computers are used to access pornography. One patron recently reported an incident that occurred when she visited Harold Washington Library in Chicago to complete forms on a library computer. She claimed that the person on the computer next to her was viewing hardcore pornography and was taking photographs of the screen using his mobile phone camera.

That individual was viewing material of very explicit nature and the screen was in full view of other users of the library. When the woman mentioned what was going on to a security guard, she was told that there was nothing that could be done. The library had chosen to honor patrons First Amendment Rights, even though those rights were in conflict with public decency. A reporter spoke to one librarian who said “Up here in this branch there’s porn 24/7.”

Most libraries in Chicago do not use web filters to limit access to obscene material, although that is not the case in all libraries in the United States. The reverse is true in libraries in Wisconsin for example.

The American Library Association does not recommend the use of web filters in libraries and instead believes the issue of inappropriate website usage should be tackled in other ways, such as to “remind people to behave well in public.”

The debate over First Amendment rights and the blocking of pornography in libraries is likely to continue for many years to come. However, institutions that are commonly frequented by individuals under the age of 18, who are not permitted by law to view pornography, efforts should be made to protect them from harm.  If technical measures such as web filters are not used to block pornography in libraries, at the very least libraries should use privacy screens to limit the potential for minors to view other users’ screens.

Do you believe patrons of libraries should be allowed to view any and all website content? Should First Amendment rights extent to the viewing of pornography in libraries?