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Free porn or freedom from porn? Anchorage library looks for balance in internet rules

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: March 27, 2017
  • Published March 26, 2017

The Loussac Library is seen on June 14, 2016 in this file photo. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

On terminals in Anchorage's public library system, adults explore all the corners of the internet — including pornographic websites.

But in the middle of a rewrite of internet-use policies, library officials say they're wrestling with ways to balance the intellectual freedom of porn-searching adults with making the city's public libraries safe and welcoming for everyone.

Until recently, the Anchorage Public Library had a mostly "hands-off" policy when it came to complaints about internet users, said Annie Reeves, the library's community relations coordinator. The main exception was the Muldoon Library, one of the city's four library branches. The public computers there are right next to the children's section, Reeves said, and porn was banned.

Elsewhere in the library system, staff and security would typically try to move perturbed patrons to a different desk or area. The source of the complaint went unaddressed.

That has started to quietly shift in the past few months. Library staff still do not actively patrol or police use of the internet. But they're more likely to step up and intervene in response to complaints or disruptions, Reeves said.

That may mean asking the person watching graphic content to check out a laptop and face a wall.  

"Prior to this policy … if you complain, you're the one who has a problem, not the person viewing the material," Reeves said. "Now that's shifted and changed."

It's a new direction being formalized in the library's internet use policies. The Anchorage Library Advisory Board reviewed a draft of the new policy at its monthly meeting this week.

The lively discussion that followed, with mentions of the Las Vegas erotic movie "Showgirls" and the sexually explicit novel "Lady Chatterly's Lover," left some board members uncertain over the best way to proceed.

The computers at the Anchorage public library filter internet content to comply with the Children's Internet Protection Act, a federal law requiring libraries and public schools to restrict the access of minors to harmful content. Adults age 18 and older can request a session without filters.

At the library advisory board meeting, Reeves threw out a wildly hypothetical example: A person watching puppies being made into tacos on a public computer. Other patrons freak out.

Librarians may then talk to the person watching the video, Reeves said.

"We may say 'Hey, there's a disruption going on, people are bothered by what you're watching, why don't we move you to a different location where the public isn't seeing what you're seeing,' " she said.

That might include suggesting the person check out a laptop and move elsewhere, she said. She said staff will receive training in the coming months.

This new policy is trying to value "relationship and interaction over restriction," as board member Cristy Willer put it later.

"We're trying to say there's access but there's a way to allow that in the context of not disturbing others, if at all possible," Willer said.

But board member Jonathon Bittner said he felt uncomfortable with asking someone to move to a separate area for looking up graphic material online.  

"I'm not sure how much I want to facilitate that, a library becoming an anonymous porn hub," Bittner said.

Reeves said the new policy is aimed at giving the person options. If there's nowhere for the person to browse the internet without being disruptive, that person may be asked to leave, Reeves said.

Occasionally, staff members have felt sexually harassed by material on a computer, said the library director, Mary Jo Torgeson. In those cases, she said, the library has also asked patrons to go to a different area or get off that website.

Bittner, picking up on Reeves' hypothetical example, also said he was worried about the message the library was sending. He said he didn't want the library's desire to be a friendly, safe place for most people to be outweighed by "a fringe majority's right to look at whatever they want," even if they're discreet.

But Reeves pointed out that this was a departure from the library's past "hands-off" policy.

"Maybe we do need to step up and say, this behavior's just not acceptable," Reeves said.  

At the start of the meeting, Michael Robinson, the head of the systems department at the library shared by the University of Alaska Anchorage and Alaska Pacific University and the former chair of the Alaska Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Committee, talked to board members about balancing the inviting nature of the library with what he called a person's "freedom of inquiry."

Robinson said the internet poses vexing challenges. Unlike a book collection, the library is not going to be reviewing every website, Robinson said. And internet content on public terminals could cause problems, in ways that someone reading a sexually explicit book near you won't, Robinson said.

But filters can be problematic because they "both underblock and overblock," Robinson said. For example, a search for "breast cancer" may be blocked in an attempt to restrict access to graphic material, Robinson said.

A clearly bewildered board member, Lo Crawford, asked Torgeson and Reeves how many times the library discovers people looking at porn on the public computers.

It's not very often, Torgeson said. But, she added, the librarians aren't walking around looking.

Board chair David Levy said he'd observed it twice while he's been at the library.

In one of those cases, the person left before Levy could address it, he said. In the other, librarians talked to the person, who then decided to leave, he said.

Reeves, who has a law degree, said she'd spent hours researching the legal history of the topic. She found a U.S. Supreme Court case from 2003 where the court ruled that federal library filtering requirements did not infringe on First Amendment rights. She also uncovered a 2016 state court case in Wisconsin that found a library was not required to allow people to watch pornographic content.

Other Alaska libraries have made less of an effort to strike a balance when it comes especially to pornography. The Wasilla Public Library's online policy, for example, prohibits "display of sexually explicit images at any electronic device in public view."

The UAA/APU Consortium Library's policy states: "Displaying pornography or other webpages found to be harassing, disruptive or offensive to others is not allowed."

Reeve said the Anchorage library has a right to make the decision to restrict certain content. But right now, she said, the library is trying to be flexible.

Torgeson also signaled that the library plans to defend First Amendment rights — and that may mean not saying no to porn nor to videos about puppy tacos.

"I know it is principled, but that's what libraries are," Torgeson said. "We strive for ethics and we strive particularly now for First Amendment rights, and that doesn't mean it's comfortable."

The Library Advisory Board plans to review a revised draft of the new internet policy at its April 19 meeting.

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