Thursday, July 30, 2009

Internet Filters For Kids, Part 2

I was hoping not to have to go into this kind of legal detail, but it now seems drearily unavoidable

In yesterday's post I supported, with some limitations, internet filters on library computers used by children. In that post, I listed nine stumbling blocks I felt could easily derail a project to implement such filters. So far, I've gotten pushback from commentators on only one of those nine items, which has me feeling pretty good.

But I'm surprised, and a little nonplussed, about WHICH of the nine stumbling blocks raised somebody's hackles. It was item four: "It'll fail if you try to deny the plain fact that limiting what adults can find on the internet is censorship."

Frankly, I thought this was the least controversial and least assailable of the nine problems I mentioned. I want to make it clear that I'm not trying to be clever or split legalistic hairs here. That's not my style. My item number four was based on plain English and common sense.

A commentator going by SafeLibraries believes I'm in error and that "it is pure propaganda to say filtering for adults is censorship." S/he believes the US v. ALA Supreme Court decision says so. I guess we disagree, then, on two things: 1) the plain meaning of the word censorship, and 2) the meaning of the US v. ALA decision.

For the record, I do disagree with the Supreme Court's decision in this case. I side with the District Court and the three dissenting Supreme Court Justices who found that internet filters for adults do amount to censorship. I feel that the court applied very crabbed logic to permit federal authority over local library content, with the effect of restricting free speech. My non-expert opinion is that the court was correct in asserting that a library is not a public forum (in the sense of the speaker on the public square), but what the old-fashioned Justices failed to grasp is that in the 21st century the internet IS the public square.

But my disagreement with the court is irrelevant. The decision stands and is legally applicable.

So what does US v. ALA say? Does it say what SafeLibraries would have us believe? I'm no lawyer, but I strongly doubt it.

The US v. ALA decision is about the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA). It is important to understand that the CIPA is not an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, nor is it even a broad federal law affecting all libraries. The CIPA is a set of strings that are attached to the acceptance of federal funds under certain specific programs (E-rate and LSTA). A library taking those funds is required to implement internet filters to protect children from obscene and otherwise harmful materials. The CIPA has no impact on libraries that don't accept those particular funds.

The American Library Association and others sued the federal government, claiming that the CIPA strings infringed free speech. They won in District Court, but that decision was overturned by the Supreme court in US v. ALA. In that decision, the court affirmed that the federal government has a significant state interest in protecting children from obscene and harmful materials, and that, if properly managed, filters do not impose too serious a restriction on adults.

Trying to generalize US v. ALA beyond those libraries bound by funding to the CIPA, as SafeLibraries is trying to do, is a legal swamp. It'll be years before case law clarifies that.

But more importantly, go back and look at what I said. I said that limiting adult access to information amounts to censorship. Both the original CIPA and US v. ALA support that position. The FCC's summary of the CIPA states that in a library subject to the CIPA "an authorized person may disable the blocking or filtering measure during any use by an adult to enable access for bona fide research or other lawful purposes." In US v. ALA the Supreme Court affirmed that detail, writing, "if, as the Government represents, a librarian will unblock filtered material or disable the Internet software filter without significant delay on an adult user's request, there is little to this case." Both the CIPA and US v. ALA, then, acknowledge that the ability of an adult to bypass internet filters is essential to keeping the CIPA constitutional.

I call the reader's attention to one particular phrase in the US v. ALA decision: "if some libraries do not have the capacity to unblock specific Web sites or to disable the filter or if it is shown that an adult user's election to view constitutionally protected Internet material is burdened in some other substantial way, that would be the subject for an as-applied challenge." The court has deliberately left open the possibility of litigation should it happen that a library can't provide an adult with unfiltered internet access.

The position taken by SafeLibraries touches two of the other nine stumbling blocks I listed in yesterday's post. In item eight I said, "it'll fail if you let political hacks hijack a legitimate interest in children's safety and turn it into an attempt to control public discourse." That is clearly what is happening here, as SafeLibraries tries to take a relatively narrow ruling and turn it into a general repudiation of the First Amendment. I also warned, in item seven, that "it'll fail if you create a situation where the library/city/county gets sued and looses, forcing the entire project back to square one and leaving the taxpayer on the hook for the legal bills." SafeLibraries will get you there in a hurry.

The US v. ALA decision can be read at:

The FCC's administrative summary of the CIPA can be read at:

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Internet Filters For Kids

It might surprise some readers of this blog that I support Internet Filters on library computers that are used by children. For the record, I think they're a great idea. I think they're technically feasible, legally supportable, and beneficial to children. What I object to is the shoot-from-hip, one-size-fits-all, quick-fix rhetoric that tries to deny the complexities inherent in the issue.

Internet Filters for children are doable, but not simple. You have to be smart about it. If you're not, the implementation will fail, and children will not be protected. I've identified some of the most likely stumbling blocks below.

  1. It'll fail if you reduce the problem to one of pornography, as much of the debate rhetoric tends to do. Pornography is only a small part of the problem, and there'd be far less debate if that's all it was about. Internet filters are about preventing contact with online predators, preventing children from revealing personal information to strangers, and providing age-appropriate materials, among other things.

  2. It'll fail if you think it's free. Implementing filters will cost time and tax dollars, both for the initial set up and on an ongoing basis. This has to be planned for, budgeted, and controlled.

  3. It'll fail if you believe there is such a thing as a perfect filter that can block inappropriate material for children and at the same time allow adults to have access to all legitimate websites. No such filter exists, nor is it logical to expect that it could: people can't agree with each other about what's appropriate or objectionable, let alone program a computer to make the distinction for them.

  4. It'll fail if you try to deny the plain fact that limiting what adults can find on the internet is censorship.

  5. It'll fail if you try to treat a 17-year-old computer user the same as a 7-year-old computer user.

  6. It'll fail if you create a huge administrative headache for library staff by requiring constant intervention and supervision, or if you put library staff in the position of having to decide which sites are objectionable or legitimate.

  7. It'll fail if you create a situation where the library/city/county gets sued and looses, forcing the entire project back to square one and leaving the taxpayer on the hook for the legal bills. I would be one of the first to encourage such a suit if the implementation of filters went even an inch too far in censoring internet access for adults.

  8. It'll fail if you let political hacks hijack a legitimate interest in children's safety and turn it into an attempt to control public discourse.

  9. And as if all that weren't enough, the project will fail if you implement a filtering scheme that is too weak or too easily bypassed to be effective.

In spite of the above, and other potential problems, I think internet filters are feasible. We just need to have realistic expectations and tangible goals.

One of the simplest, though not necessarily the cheapest, things that can be done is to set up a separate set of computers, reserved for use by younger children and physically separated from the computers used by adults. You can then put whatever filters you want on the kids' computers without infringing upon the right of adult users to make their own decisions about what is appropriate for them.

I make this suggestion because people rarely stop to think about what will happen if adult and child computer users are mingled, even if all the computers are filtered. Inevitably, the time will come when a parent will notice that his or her child is sitting next to an adult who is viewing material that the parent doesn't want the child to see. The adult computer user won't be doing anything wrong. The material accessed will be perfectly legal and will pass easily through any filters appropriate for adults. But the parent will still see something objectionable in the presence of children. The adult user could be:

  • Doing research in art history that involves looking at images of museum pieces such as Michelangelo's David or other nude figures.
  • Looking at the results of an archaeological dig that unearthed phallus-shaped pottery (I'm not making this up, it happens).
  • Reading a coroner's report about an unusually gruesome murder.
  • Reading Hitler's Mein Kampf or Marx's Communist Manifesto.
  • Reading material about one or another religious sect, or about atheism.

Since what is objectionable is a matter of personal opinion, the list is potentially endless. The point here is that no amount of filtering will make everybody happy, and that something as simple as setting up a Kid's Computing area can go a long way to reducing conflict. I didn't say it was perfect. There are still issues about the maximum age of patrons on the kids' computers, the minimum age for using the adults' computers, parental permission, and the like. I don't think this is the entire solution. But I do think it would help.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

It's Perfectly Normal

I suspect that many (I didn't say all) involved in the library debate simply haven't taken a close look at the challenged materials. For that reason, I'll include a few book reviews in this blog.

I'll start with It's Perfectly Normal because it's one of the toughest to deal with: there is actually some substance, however little, to the debate about this one. It's also different from many of the other books objected to by the CCLU, WBC4SL, Ginny Maziarka, etc. Unlike most of the others, this is non-fiction. And, since it is heavily illustrated, the evaluation of its alleged obscenity is somewhat different than for literature.

It's Perfectly Normal provides factual answers to the kinds of questions frequently (almost universally) asked by young people entering or experiencing puberty. It's about body parts and body functions, changing feelings, social aspects of sexuality, and the like. A lot of information is packed into 96 pages, which is one of the reasons the book has won multiple awards and is endorsed by a number of medical and child-education groups. Information on HIV, AIDS and STDs is included, as is a discussion of abstinence and postponement of sex as valid (but not the only) choices.

The book can be found in a huge number of school and public libraries throughout Wisconsin and the U.S. The American Library Association has listed this as one of the most frequently challenged books in some years, but this is more a measure of its extreme commonness than of its supposed luridness. In the vast majority of cases, the challenge has failed, and the book has remained on the shelf in the Young Adult or Children's section.

Yes the book is illustrated, with cartoon-like drawings similar to, but more explicit than, those you can see on the front cover (pictured above). The most explicit of the illustrations, selected by opponents of the book, can be found at this link, which I've copied from the WISSUP blog:

The pictures shown at that link are taken out of context, but are otherwise accurate.

As can be expected with anything having to do with information about sex for young people, parents vary in their perception of this book. Some are grateful for such a resource either to give to their children to read or to read together with them. Some would prefer not to give their children the information in this book, and others find the material objectionable. Private opinion and public policy are not the same thing, however.

Is it pornographic? That's a matter of individual opinion. Pornographic is not a technical or legal term, so anybody can call anything pornographic. It's Perfectly Normal is pornographic if you think any depiction of nudity, even a cartoon drawing meant to communicate medical facts, is pornographic. It's pornographic if you think factual, medical information about sex and sexuality is pornographic. But calling something pornographic, at least in so imprecise a sense, is no basis for censorship, nor especially useful in any other way.

Is it obscene? That's a much easier question to answer, since the term obscene has technical and legal definitions. To meet the definition of obscene, the book would have to be patently offensive, prurient, and without serious value. Some might consider It's Perfectly Normal to be patently offensive, since that is very much in the eye of the beholder. Some might try to call it prurient, but it just doesn't qualify, since by definition a simple and frank interest in sex and sexuality is not prurient. Of course the book has serious value, since it provides accurate and useful information that young people entering puberty both want and need. Since the book meets at most one out of the three tests for obscenity, it is not obscene in any legally actionable sense.

Would a warning label help? No. A parent who doesn't pay attention to the phrase "Sex and Sexual Health" right there on the front cover isn't going to notice some other kind of label. Would moving the book out of the Young Adult section help? No, since that does nothing to restrict anybody's access to anything unless you also have physical restraints controlling which patrons can go to which parts of the library.

If it isn't legally obscene and there's nothing to be gained from labeling or reclassification, what's the real issue here? Let's be honest. It's not the medical information or the cartoonish drawings that upset those who object to It's Perfectly Normal. The problem with this book is that it mentions sex and sexuality without attaching shame, fire or brimstone. Worse, it mentions the fact that homosexual people and homosexual relationships exist, without adding a note of condemnation. Those who want to restrict access to this book aren't worried about depictions of sex or information about sex. They're really not even trying to control what their own children learn about the real world, since they can manage that by basic parental supervision.
The only thing that's left is that they're trying to control the perspective on the world that is open to other people's children. Culture war. That's politics.

It's Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health, written by Robbie Harris and published by Candlewick Press.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Staying on Message?

The WBC4SL continue to demonstrate an inability to stay on message. Wasn’t it supposed to be about obscenity, and wasn’t it supposed to be about protecting children?

The logo pictured here is what Maziarka objects to on this morning’s post to her Wissup Blog. She writes, “The logo shows a naked women lying on top of a book. You get the idea.” Of course, on reading those words, the image created in the reader’s mind is far worse than the reality. This is typical of the WBC4SL’s entire argument about obscenity in the library: insinuate into the minds of the public something that doesn’t exist in reality. is a legitimate website for booklovers. It is by and for grownups, but isn’t in the least bit obscene. The West Bend Library links to it under “Adult Programs and Booklists,” not under “Young Adults.” Again, we see that the WBC4SL’s claim to be protecting children is a ruse to control all of the library’s content.

This is also a good test case for the problem of internet filters. This website is one that would be blocked by most filtering services, not because it is obscene (it isn’t), but just because it uses the word slut. Blocking this site from access by young children might be OK, not because the site is a danger to them in any way, but because it is just too grown up for them. But most filters will also block this site from young adults and adults, who should be able to access it. Yes there are ways of dealing with that, but they all place a burden on librarians and patrons alike. The effect: censorship plain and simple.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why Can't I Have my Cake and Eat it Too?

We would all like to have a magical cake, one we can eat whenever we want but is never used up. A lovely dream, but most of us recognize that such a thing is impossible in any practical reality.

Not so the WBC4SL and the CCLU, who are trying both to have and to eat their cake.

How are the WBC4SL and the CCLU eating their cake? They're eating their cake by the simple fact of living within the modern world. They live in the United States in the 21st century, a pluralistic society with unprecedented levels of diversity. They have jobs, go to the market, watch television, and otherwise engage with a wide variety of people, many quite unlike the members of the WBC4SL and CCLU, all day and every day.

Within our society there are smaller groups that choose some degree of isolation. Convents and monasteries are extreme examples of places where people go when they choose not to live worldly lives, and instead to close themselves off with like-minded others. There are many other levels of isolation, though, like Amish communities, communes, cooperatives, and the like, where members interact mostly with their own kind, although they have some degree of contact with the outside world.

The WBC4SL and the CCLU aren't like those isolated communities. They interact every day with the complexity and diversity of American life. That's a choice.

But the WBC4SL and CCLU want to have their cake as well as eat it. They expect to interact with diverse America yet be unaffected by it. They want to go to the same office and same grocery store as every body else, maybe even to the same library, without every encountering the differences around them. They're like monks after the monastery has burned down, who are now dashing about the blaring city streets screaming at everyone, "don't lead me into temptation," "don't show me anything I don't approve of," and "Oh you worldly people are vile!"

They're trying to have their cake and eat it too by imposing labels and restrictions at the West Bend Library. They want to send their kids to the library, a public place, but at the same time guarantee that their kids won't find anything that contradicts WBC4SL values. Bad enough, but it's actually far worse than that. The WBC4SL wants to turn every librarian into a WBC4SL parent, deciding which patrons can access which materials using WBC4SL standards. They're trying to make public space an extension of their private universe.

It wouldn't be enough for them to enter a cloister. They'd rather take every body else with them by building a wall around the whole town of West Bend. Have they ever read Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and did they like it?

Most of us realize we have to live in a society that includes people with values different from our own. But then again, most of us realize we can't have our cake and eat it too.

Porn, Predators and Prevarication

A recent comment posted on Randy Melchert's blog by "West Bend Mom" claims to describe "the issue for anyone uni[n]formed," yet the most uninformed source seems to be West Bend Mom herself. She likens the books in the West Bend Library to internet predators and pornographic movies, showing that she's heard the hype but hasn't done her homework.

She writes, "they are allowing young children to read about things that there are laws out there protecting them from." This statement is true, but not in the way the writer intended. There are, in fact, books in the library that inform children about some of the dangers that exist in the real world. That's a good thing. What the writer likely meant, though, was that there are books in the library that break some kind of law designed to protect children. Of course there aren't, but because she's short on specifics she leaves this insinuation in the mind of the reader, continuing the hype.

She writes, " Would anyone allow their child to purpos[e]ly chat sexually with a predator on the internet? Of course not, then why would you allow books to be available for them to read that say the same things?" What books in the library are in any way like an internet predator? She clearly feels there is something dangerous in the library, but forgets that a book never kidnapped or molested a child. The hype continues.

She writes, "Would you rent a porn movie for your kid? NO, I doubt anyone with common sense would. Why is it then, that they are allowing these books to be viewed by children." There are, of course, no books in the library that are even remotely like a "porn movie." Again, by being vague, she leaves an unsubstantiated claim in the mind of the reader (more hype).

She does actually get specific in one instance: "I can show them where [Kama] Sutra is available for them to give to their child to read." Yes, the Kama Sutra really is about sex and isn't age-appropriate for children. Here West Bend Mom seems to go beyond the WBC4SL, since the Kama Sutra is NOT in the Children or Young Adult sections of the library. But even in this specific she's not very specific. There are any number of books with the Kama Sutra title, varying from scholarly discussions of the ancient Sanskrit text (which was not illustrated, by the way) to modern picture books having very little to do with the original. She's using the Kama Sutra title for its shock value, hoping people imagine the worst and don't bother to check in with reality. Of course the copy held by the West Bend Library is one of the more scholarly editions (yes, you can look that up online without even getting out of your chair).

West Bend Mom needs to stop accepting the hype uncritically and do at least some basic fact-checking. Maybe, just maybe, she'll go to the library and see what's really there. Myabe, just maybe, there'd more facts and less hype in this debate.

West Bend Mom's entire comment can be read at , in response to his July 22nd posting titled "CNN on West Bend Library".

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Irony and Its Discontents

Irony can be difficult for the literal-minded to interpret. Ginny Maziarka certainly provides an example of that in this morning's post on her Wissup blog, where she accuses Mark Peterson of insulting the Bible and the unusually pious community of West Bend. Peterson's article was intended ironically, so Maziarka missed the point.

Dr. Peterson did not insult the Bible. Those doubting the accuracy of his descriptions of various passages should take the unusual step of actually looking them up.

But more to the point, Peterson tries to raise an important question: is it possible to develop a set of objective criteria that allows restriction of the library materials Maziarka objects to, yet leaves open access to the materials she approves of? The simple answer is that this is impossible because her criteria are arbitrary.

The WBC4SL wants to label and restrict access to some literature (text, not images) based on its informational content. Yet the Bible, and no doubt other books they want children to be able to read in the library, address the same themes. If they want to restrict access to books that mention homosexuality, incest, prostitution, adultery, and the like, the Bible clearly falls into that category. What is revealed here is that it isn't the mention of these themes that offends the WBC4SL, but the perspective a particular work takes. In other words, it's a question of which political party a particular book aligns with.

Maybe the library should just clear each title with "The Maziarka Committee." (Note to the literal-minded: this suggestion is an example of IRONY).

Mark Peterson's Blog is at:

His column, as linked from the Wissup blog, is at:

Friday, July 24, 2009

Library Censorship in West Bend, WI

I would like to thank the Christian Civil Liberties Union (CCLU) and the West Bend Citizens For Safe Libraries (WBC4SL) for their accomplishments:

  • By inventing controversy where none existed, they've provided free advertising for books that many would otherwise never know existed.
  • Some may even read these books.
  • They've brought attention to the unfortunate fact that attempts at censorship are still alive and well in these United States.
The books they object to are not unusual. In fact, they are abundantly common. For example, they specifically name Francesca Lia Bock's Baby Be Bop and Harris and Emberly's It's Perfectly Normal. These books are found in high school and public libraries across Wisconsin and the rest of the U.S. They are classified as "Young Adult" in most of them, and are available to most library patrons without age limitations (don’t take my word for it, check some online catalogues).

It is clear from much of the rhetoric on this issue that many of those objecting to these books simply have not read them. I went to my local library, found both in the Children's section, and read them. Baby Be Bop is a compelling and artistically written short story about an adolescent struggling for self-acceptance in the face of growing awareness of his own homosexuality. It is gritty and probably beyond the understanding of younger children, but addresses issues many American adolescents must face. It’s Perfectly Normal is a book of medical information, endorsed by doctors, appropriate for teens entering or experiencing puberty. It is frank, but by no means lurid, and fills a need for simple and honest information many adolescents experience.

The best way to understand the WBC4SL is probably to take a close look at the petition they circulated and submitted to the library board (see links on the Sources page of this blog). Loaded with disinformation and legal-sounding misrepresentations of obscenity law, the main objective of the petition is to inflame public opinion rather than to achieve any practical end. By repeating a call for restrictions on pornographic materials, it insinuates into the minds of the public the notion that the West Bend library houses such materials. Of course, the library has no such books, nor does the claim make any sense: if the library were clearly violating obscenity law, objecting patrons could simply call the police to have the matter taken care of.

Let's be clear on this point. The materials held by the library, including those specifically objected to by the CCLU and WBC4SL, are not obscene. They are not even close to obscene. West Bend citizens will see more objectionable material on MTV and the Discovery Health Channel, both of which are carried by local cable television services.

The first item on the petition, "Reclassification of Youth-Targeted Pornographic Books," is meaningless because there are no materials in the library that meet the criteria they've written. Out of legal ignorance the WBC4SL assume that terms like "prurient" and "patently offensive" are understood in the same way by everyone, when in fact they are notoriously difficult to pin down. The WBC4SL would have to provide much more detailed criteria before this item would be even remotely practicable. The petition also ignores the practical side of the proposed restriction: how will library staff decide which patrons can check out or view which materials? For more on this point, see the Obscenity Law post on this blog.

Item 2, "Visual identification of explicit material," suffers from exactly the same shortcomings as the first item. Of course, any such mark on library holdings would act as a beacon to anyone seeking sexual or controversial material.

Item 3, "Restrict Access to Library-produced Sexual Content Online," is by far the most disturbing part of the petition. It proposes to restrict which books the library can advertize on its website, and restrict what the library can say about the books it holds. This is a gross violation of free speech and a gross attempt at censorship.

Item 4, "Balanced Literature on Controversial Issues," is entirely moot. The library already has an extensive collection of materials by conservative religious, political, and social writers, including James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, Ann Coulter and Kent Hovind. Again, check the online catalogue.

Item 5, "Children's Internet Protection," completely ignores the fact that the library already has an effective policy that limits computer use to adults and to minors with parental permission. The library can do more in this area, but the petition ignores, again, the detailed practicalities involved. Kid-safe computing in the library will require planning, equipment, and funding. For more in this point, see the Internet Access post on this blog.

Looking at the WBC4SL petition, blog, and other materials, one can not avoid the obvious conclusions:

  • The WBC4SL want to abdicate their parental responsibility to be aware of and manage their own children's use of public resources.
  • They want the library to treat other people's children as members of the WBC4SL would treat their own children.
  • They do not comprehend the basics of obscenity law, what censorship is, the principles of free speech and equal access, or the relationship among these themes. This has been pointed out to them, and they have refused to educate themselves.
  • They seem to think that as a tax-funded institution a library must be extraordinarily narrow with regard to which social groups it serves, when the reverse is actually true. As a tax-funded institution, the library must meet especially high standards for free speech, equal access, and inclusiveness.
  • They imagine that their particular social, political, and religious views are representative of the broader community around them.
  • The WBC4SL is homophobic, since the theme that unites most of the materials they object to is that they mention homosexuality without condemnation.

Obscenity Law

I am not a lawyer and don't have the expertise to give legal advice. I'm just summarizing what I've read.

Obscenity law is usually applied to materials far more sexually explicit than the library books to which the WBC4SL objects. To meet the definition of obscenity, the material would have to be prurient, patently offensive, and without serious value. Importantly, all three of these conditions must be met for an item to be found obscene.

Of these three, the patently offensive condition is probably the easiest to meet, since it's very much a matter of opinion. The prurience requirement is also a matter of opinion, but it isn't only a matter of opinion. There is a minimum level that material has to rise to before opinions matter. The important detail is that, by definition, a simple frank interest in sex and sexuality is not prurient, and that there has to be something unhealthful about the material.

The third condition, that of lacking serious value, is very difficult to meet. Any literature, teaching materials, medical works, and the like, would almost certainly be considered to have serious value, and therefore could not be obscene. It is important to note that while the prurience and patently offensive requirements are a matter of local community standards, the requirement of lacking serious value is not. Obscenity law says that serious value must be evaluated by the standards of a "reasonable person," a requirement included in the law as a deliberate limitation on the ability of local community standards to define anything they don’t like as obscene. Interestingly, the petition circulated by the WBC4SL excludes this aspect from their definition of obscenity.

In the unlikely event that the West Bend situation actually went to court, there would likely be a legal argument about the boundaries of the community that must be included in defining the standards of offensiveness and prurience. The library does not just serve West Bend. City budgeting materials (available online) indicate that there are some 50,000 library cards outstanding, but give no data as to which communities those card holders live in. Library policy (per the library's website) says that anybody can have a card, regardless of residence. Also, if I correctly understand the city's 2009 budget report, about 40% of the library's budget (roughly $635,000 out of 1.5 million, on page Lib-10) is paid for by Washington County, with the stated intent of serving county residents who live in areas without a municipal library. The same city budget report states that "the library will extend services to all residents of Washington County," (p. Lib-2). It is probably also significant that county administrative offices are located in West Bend. Most likely, applicable community standards would be those of the county as a whole, not just those of the municipality of West Bend.

By legal definition, such community standards are set by neither the most nor the least sensitive individuals, but by some kind of theoretically average resident. In some actual court cases, community standards were not left up to mere assertion, but have been measured directly. Defense attorneys have sometimes subpoenaed records about which websites local residents were visiting, what local adult bookstores were selling, or how many residents were watching adult pay-per-view on cable TV. This has made it very difficult to assert that community standards are as conservative as some claim them to be. Of course, none of the West Bend library materials come close to the level of sexual explicitness involved in those cases. Since Washington county cable television service includes the Discovery Health channel or MTV, the library materials are safe.

Another detail of obscenity law overlooked by the WBC4SL is that each work must be evaluated as a whole. The "offensive" excerpts they include on the Wissup blog are an effective tool for inflaming public opinion, but would be of little use in a courtroom. I am given to understand that the one exception to this has to do with child pornography, which allows any content to be evaluated without regard to the whole work. That area of pornography law is newer, so court precedent has not defined it as clearly as the broader obscenity laws. But here again, it is difficult to imagine that any of the library materials could fall into this category (much of child pornography law seems to hinge on whether there is a prurient depiction of an identifiable, individual minor).

Internet Access from Libraries

Internet access from library computers has been a source of contention across the country. The issue is not just one of defining what is or is not appropriate use of public computers -- quite a complicated matter in its own right -- but also one of technical and practical details. A few of these need to be pointed out here.

Making a computer "kid safe" is a matter of restricting which of the billions of web pages and ever-changing content a computer can see. This is a massive undertaking, and the only way a library can even begin to implement such a plan is to subscribe to a filtering service. This requires an ongoing budget allocation. That is, it costs money.

While there are a variety of filtering services using different techniques, it is critical to understand that none of them are perfect. All of them have the effect of limiting access to legitimate websites. While this may be fine for young children, for adults this is double censorship: it restricts the free speech of web content providers, and restricts the equal access of library patrons. The practical result is that the library can NOT apply the filters to all computers. This gets complicated and expensive. There must be separate computers for children and adults, and library staff must monitor who is using which machines. Computers might even have to be in separate areas, lest a child see a computer screen over the shoulder of an adult patron.

Even with filters, the parents of children using the protected systems probably still have to sign a waiver holding the library blameless for what the child sees or does online. This is necessary because the provider of the filtering service might sooner or later make a mistake, and because a patron might figure out how to hack around the filters on a particular computer. The library won't want to be liable for technical problems beyond their control.


The WBC4SL Petition can be found at:

West Bend Library Annual Report, 2006:

West Bend City Budget Report , 2009:

West Bend Library Website

West Bend Library Computer Policy (appears to be undergoing maintenance as of 24 July 2009)

American Library Association pages on frequently challenged books

Selected News Articles:

American Library Association Story

Guardian UK Story

ABC News 19 June

School Library Journal 08 June

CNN Story 09 07 22