TIF Commission meeting raises question of Internet access for public library patrons

It appeared to be an innocuous item in the minutes of a recent Kansas City Tax Increment Financing Commission meeting. The chair, Peter Yelorba, “questioned the Plaza Library’s policy regarding pornography on the Internet.” Yelorba, according to the minutes of the meeting, felt “the Internet should mirror what is on the shelves of the Library.”

The library’s policy regarding patrons’ use the Internet is that it does not monitor or control information accessible through the Internet and is not responsible for content outside of the library’s pages.

What is the TIF commission doing questioning the policies of a public library? Since a new building for the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library will be funded through a clever combination of public/private financing that uses TIF money for most of the development instead of raising the library tax, that question falls in a grey area. However, according to Yelorba, who was appointed to the TIF commission in 1998, “It’s a public forum and anyone can ask questions.” He saw no problem with asking the questions but reiterated his support for the library and the development project. He also said he was asking the questions for another group, which he declined to name.

Dan Bradbury, executive director of the Kansas City Public Library, wonders where those questions were coming from.

“I couldn’t tell if he was asking for information or what, although it was within his right to ask about it.” Bradbury says he does not think this will become an issue because “there was a unanimous vote for the proposal, and no hesitancy from anyone. While (Yelorba) lodged his concern (about pornography) initially, we were happy to have his support (in the end).”

The TIF commission passed the financing proposal on Feb. 9, and it will be sent to the city council for approval within the month.

While the proposal has passed without the issue of Internet usage becoming a controversey, the American Library Association, the country’s largest organization of public libraries, says there is a danger in outside groups asking questions that will lead to others deciding on local communities’ access to information.

There’s a small town in Michigan called Hudsonville that has no Internet access in its libraries because of a petition filed by the American Family Association. The AFA is a Mississippi-based anti-porn group that, according to Judith Krug, director of the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, and the groups’ own Web site, is targeting local libraries.

According to a Dec. 7 article in the Grand Rapids Press, the AFA submitted a proposal for a measure that required either filters on all available public Internet computers, except one, or put the proposal up for a vote on the Republican primary ballot Feb. 22. The city council chose to unplug rather than fight.

Krug called the action “extreme.” “These people were pushed to the wall. The same thing happened with videos years ago. I’m not saying what they did was wrong because they have to do what’s right for their area; but people will suffer and the ones who do will be those with no other means to access information.”

This, according to Linda Wallace, public information director for the ALA, was the first complaint in three years at that particular library. When the AFA raises complaint concerns, she cites a Virginia Library Association study in which 56 libraries nationwide were polled and out of 581,000 Internet sessions, there were 30 complaints: two dealing with content and 28 complaining about time limits and lack of computers.

Krug says of the attacks, “Sometimes my staff and I have to laugh because if we didn’t we’d cry.”

According to the ALA Fact Sheet, 73 percent of all public libraries offer public Internet access. Nearly half of those with public access have only one multimedia workstation for the public. Ninety seven percent of all public libraries have or are developing Internet use policies.

The crux of the problem is filtering. The ALA is against mandatory, blanket filtering because too many other sites are blocked besides the targeted porn sites. According to Wallace, “Filters don’t fully protect children and they block access that people might need. Superbowl XXX was recently blocked (by a filtering program) because of the ‘XXX’ was considered inappropriate.”

Filter systems are not perfect, according to an ALA fact sheet. One filter system according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Oct. 14, 1999, blocked information from sites maintained by the FBI and eBay. Another tested on Borders Book Store site blocked words such as “satanic” in the title of Salmon Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and “gay” in the Fred Astaire movie, The Gay Divorcee. Yet, some systems failed to block an average of 15 percent of objectionable material, including hate speech, hard core pornography, and violence.

Wallace says there are many different strategies to use and that filtering is not the only way. The ALA maintains that, just as with the resources available on library shelves, parents should have control over what their children read and see.

The ALA counters AFA assertions that the library organization “promotes children’s right to view pornography,” by saying, “(we) have never endorsed the viewing of pornography by children or adults,” even though they do not believe in filtering.

Senate Bill 97, which was introduced in the current Congress by presidential hopeful John McCain, (R-Ariz.), would tie filters to the E-Rate, which is the discount all libraries receive from the government concerning Internet access and availability. Under the bill, known as the Children’s Internet Protection Act, libraries would have 30 days to comply by filtering “all material considered harmful to minors during use by minors” or repay all E-Rate discounts already received under the program. In the 18 months since the program began, $1.9 billion have been committed.

In Hudsonville, a filter system was about to be installed called SmartGuardian. The system lets the patron or parent choose their level of filtering beginning with unfiltered and going up to a level five. This did not satisfy the AFA because it allowed adults to view inappropriate sites.

However, the courts so far have upheld that mandatory, total filtering is unconstitutional. Only two court cases have been tried and both sided with the library: one in Loudoun County, Va., the other in Livermore, Calif. In Reno vs. ACLU in March, 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that communication on the Internet cannot be limited to what is suitable for children.

Some argue that access to information is not only an essential elementy of a democracy, but also the main function of a public library. But no one wants their kids downloading Bambi Does Thumper. So what are local libraries doing to help curb the calamity of “accidentally” coming upon an X-rated site? Therese Bigelow, deputy director of the Kansas City Library Branches, says that all libraries have their rules for Internet use posted at all stations. That includes a warning about visiting obscenity and other illegal sites. There are also verbal warnings given.

“If a patron is doing something inappropriate, they are asked to leave,” Bigelow says.

The Kansas City Public Library Web page also has pre-selected links that guide children and teens to age-appropriate pages.

But the bottom line is that parents must be responsible for their children. Missouri law states that parents are responsible for minor children’s use of the library resources.”It is very important for parents to be savvy about the Internet,” Bigelow says. “We offer safety classes for parents and we teach teen safety for chat rooms…. Parents need to become knowledgeable. Parents have power over their children.”

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