Bill seeks Net sex site policy at libraries

Goal is to prevent access by children to pornography

March 15, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

William D. Ivins III was in the quiet room at the Wheaton Regional Library when he saw something disquieting in a nearby computer area.

Three young boys, between 10 and 12, were viewing sexually explicit material over the Internet. One was participating in a sex chat room. Two others were viewing pornographic pictures.

Ivins, 26, said he complained to a librarian, but was told there was nothing she could do. So yesterday the University of Maryland, College Park student brought his story to a Senate committee, where he testified in favor of Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr.'s bill to require local library systems to develop policies to prevent children from being exposed to Internet pornography.

"I hope his bill gives the librarian the power to go over and pull the plug or say, `You cannot view that material here,' " Ivins said.

Ivins was one of several witnesses who called on the Senate Environmental and Economic Affairs Committee to approve the Van Hollen bill, which has received broad bipartisan support.

Van Hollen, a Montgomery County Democrat, is one of the more liberal members of the Senate, while his co-sponsors include conservative Republicans Andrew P. Harris of Baltimore County and Christopher J. McCabe of Howard County.

Witnesses said use of library computers to get onto Internet sex sites was a serious problem.

Kristin Thompson, 25, she was walking through a library in Oxon Hill with her 15-year-old brother when they saw a computer that was left showing an explicit scene involving sex with animals.

"It was disturbing for me to know that my brother had to be exposed to such vulgar and explicit material," she said.

The bill would give library systems broad authority to draft policies, but would give the state school superintendent the authority to make sure each jurisdiction had a policy in place.

Some Maryland counties already have policies restricting children's access to Internet sex sites, while others do not.

The bill would permit but not require local library systems to use software to filter out sexual content from the Internet.

J. Maurice Travillian, assistant state superintendent for libraries, said the State Department of Education supports the legislation.

He praised the bill for leaving decisions to local library boards with only general oversight from the school superintendent. He said it was drafted narrowly enough to withstand any legal scrutiny.

"It's a reasonable and practical approach to an issue that's often very divisive," Travillian said.

Eva Murphy, representing the Maryland Coalition Against Pornography, backed the measure but said she would have preferred a stronger bill.

"The bill sends a message that the state is concerned," she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union was viewing the legislation warily but did not testify against it.

Suzanne Smith, the Maryland ACLU's legislative director, said the bill is "a pretty modest effort." She noted that it does not require the use of filters -- a provision the group would oppose.

The legislation also drew support from librarians, though they objected to provisions to give the superintendent power to review locals' plans and to withhold some state aid to any system whose plan was judged inadequate.

But Van Hollen said those provisions should remain in the bill.

"The state oversight and the enforcement power is essential to ensuring compliance," he said.

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