By Elizabeth Warden
With access to a library card, anybody in Los Angeles can visit a public library and surf the Web. Whatever is legal material is fair game.
That means some library patrons could be flocking to the library not to grab the newest novel to hit the book stacks, or for a quiet place to study, but instead to indulge in a guilty pleasure: To watch pornography.
A recent complaint from the Chinatown Los Angeles Public Library from parents brought this issue to the attention of Los Angeles City Council. On Tuesday, the council discussed options the city had about dealing with the issue but still protecting one’s First Amendment rights. Library officials have responded with strategies like the positioning of computers.
“We were directed … to make sure every computer had a privacy screen and suggest that if any of computers had to be moved or changed,” said Cheryl Collins, who is the acting director of branch services.
There are currently five branch libraries that are refiguring their computer areas to make the screens less visible to the standby visitor. Collins said she also the library system ordered more privacy screens to replace ones that she found to be ineffective and old.
“We think it’s the responsibility of the parent to monitor the child’s use of the library … we do know that’s not always possible, but we try to provide as much as possible the most secure environment we can,” Martin Gomez, who is the city librarian, told city council.
Out of the thousands of computers in the Los Angeles public library system, Collins told the council that there are only a handful of complaints year-to-year about the subject. In retrospect, she estimated that there’s about a dozen to two-dozen yearly complaints.
“Every year some of them are legitimate and some of them are borderline, it’s kind of like the ebbs and flows,” she said.
And at the Jefferson Park Branch Library located in South Los Angeles, senior librarian John Frank has rarely dealt with the issue.
If the situation were to arise, he said he would hope the parents or children involved would notify him so the library employees can see if the computer needed to be moved or the privacy screen wasn’t working.
But because of a patron’s constitutional rights, he said he could never tell them to stop viewing pornography. He believes he has to uphold the First Amendment.
“There’s not much you can do as far as ostracizing anyone who is doing that, that is their kind of right,” he said.
The Jefferson Park Branch Library is one of many that has strategically positioned computers so they are not in visible sight of the Kid’s Zone – an area of the library designated for children, equipped with computers that only allow access to educational sites and games.
Some say the positioning of computers and privacy screens isn’t enough to protect children, like Councilmember Paul Krekorian, who brought up the issue of pornography filters.
“I’m completely unclear of how we can’t deal with this issue with filtering software rather than going on the step of adding a higher degree of privacy to pornography viewers,” he said at the council meeting.
“It just doesn’t make sense.”
A 2003 Supreme Court decision upheld that libraries and schools receiving federal funding must use filtering software. But because Los Angeles public libraries do not receive federal funds, it is not mandated to not use a filtering system.
And although the filtering system sounds good on paper, Frank said that it doesn’t really solve the problem because images and materials that a patron should be able to view sometimes don’t get through.
“It looks for words, certain images and things … What ends up happening is things that you should be able to access like paintings in the Lourve, you don’t get to see.”
Gomez also mentioned at the council meeting another example of the incompetence of filtering systems – if a patron were to be researching breast cancer, but the sites would be blocked because they are associated with the word “breast.”
Councilmember Krekorian asked if the libraries could adopt a filtering system that only filters graphic images and graphic domains, and not words.
But if libraries were to implement that, Gomez reasoned, they would be climbing a slippery slope because although there are separate collections in libraries – juvenile, teenager, and adult – the library can’t stop a patron from checking out material – like a classic novel that some may deem as offensive – in any of the sections.
When parents sign their children up for a library card, they are asked what kind of Internet access their child should have: full access, limited access, or no access at all.
Fathers like Andrew Jenkins believe it’s his responsibility to watch over his daughter when she’s at the library, even if he believes people shouldn’t view pornography in the library. Because of this, he said he allows her to have full access to the Internet.
Some regular visitors of the Jefferson Park Branch Library said they have seen people view pornography there before.
Lavion Phillips said he’s not okay with it, but those who chose to do it should not be singled out.
“People think other people are weird because they watch it, but you never know what they go through,” he said.
Another local visitor said that patrons should either view it at home or make sure kids aren’t around if they decide to watch it in the library.
“Like after school, when a lot of kids start coming in there, you don’t need to do that,” he said.
But ultimately Frank and those who spoke at city council agree that Los Angeles public libraries like the Jefferson Branch are public places for everyone to share. The Los Angeles public libraries system will do yearly check-ups on computers to make sure privacy screens are working and computers areas are engineered to not cause further disturbance.
“You don’t want to cut anyone off,” Frank said.
“But, you also have to make it an atmosphere for everyone to use it.”
Click for audio:
Views from the street: should people be able to watch pornography in public libraries?