Obscenity at the library

Internet: Bill to protect children from pornography without requiring filters is reasonable.

March 18, 2000

ONE of the worst ideas emerging from discussions over taming the Internet is to have public libraries place filters that would block pornographic Web sites.

Internet filters aren't like water purifiers that perfectly detect contaminants. They can block innocent sites that contain information about Super Bowl XXX or AIDS while letting through prurient materials that use benign language.

So how should the state respond when a woman complains to the Maryland Senate's Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee that in one case a patron viewing a bestiality scene from the Internet left the image on the screen? Anyone can understand her concern that young children looking for Dr. Seuss might be exposed to such filth.

But the extent of children and adults using library computers for Internet pornography is unknown, so charges from filter proponents that libraries are becoming dirty bookstores are probably a reach. Still, it's a good idea for libraries in our area to confront this issue sensibly.

Maryland Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr. offers some reasonable suggestions in a bill before the General Assembly. It would allow county libraries to establish policies restricting the use of Web sites for inappropriate material. State school superitendent Nancy Grasmick would review the policies of each jurisdiction. The superintendent would be able to withhold funding from county library boards that fail to draft policies.

The legislation is on the right track. It seeks to clear up the confusion over whether librarians can pull the plug on patrons who download obscene material.

The bill needs some changes, however. It seeks to compromise on the filter issue by permitting libraries to use the devices, while not requiring them. Legislators should back off that provision altogether.

The solution should protect -- and prevent -- children from looking at indecent material without restricting legitimate information that library users expect in this cyber age.

Pub Date: 3/18/00

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