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Unfettered Access

May 3, 2002

Monday’s Commentary page in the Mountain Mail had a funny cartoon. It depicted a little schoolboy sitting at a computer in a public library, presumably connected to the Internet. He wore a startled, bug-eyed expression; his hair stood straight up; and his hat was flying off his head.

At the circulation desk stood two old-maid librarians — or possibly grandmothers — and one said to the other, “Now don’t jump to conclusions, Ernestine … He may be researching breast cancer or sexually transmitted diseases.”

He may well have been. Students have a way of picking topics that fascinate them, scare them, or simply offend their parents.

But the cartoon made me laugh, in the way Jay Leno makes me laugh. Political cartoonists and comedians need be only slightly right to make their jokes work.

But given that the Pew Research Center found that many people get their political news from late-night talk shows such as Leno’s, I wondered how many people might take the joke as informed comment and conclude that the library offers anyone and everyone unfettered access to anything on the Internet.

While our library offers fast but unfiltered access to the Internet, one is not free to do anything. Like society in general, we have rules and penalties for their violation. We have no more authority or effect than the police in proscribing your actions. We expect civil behavior from young and old alike.

The cartoon pokes fun at one of the standard arguments made by the American Library Association, and others, that Internet content filters fail to distinguish between constitutionally protected content and unprotected content. The cartoon lampoons librarians for rationalizing open access at the expense of children.

You might not care what “protected content” a child, or anyone, misses as long as he or she doesn’t see sexually explicit content. Or violent content; or hate-filled content; or non-Christian religious content; or racist content; or Communist content; or Democratic Party content; etc.

Is pop star Britney Spears sexually explicit? Is hunting violent? Is NASCAR auto racing violent? Is news coverage of the Middle East crisis violent, racist, or hate-filled content?

I know: We’re talking pornography, and you and I both know it when we see it. How much time, effort, and money should we spend to guarantee protection against it? Of course, there is no guarantee. A constant battle is waged between would-be filterers and nefarious Internet programmers who want to stick their rude stuff in your face.

I would love to guarantee that no one will be inadvertently offended by something that pops up on a library computer screen, but as best I can tell right now, the cost is not worth it — the cost in dollars, time, vigilance, and blind trust in someone else’ s confidence about what should be filtered.

Eventually, technology may offer a solution. Caller ID reduced the impulsive kind of crank phone calls, although it doesn’t deter the committed harrasser. Video cameras deter some crime, but they seem most useful in prosecuting the undeterred.

In the end, the best defense is an educated user. My own expectations here at the library have been fulfilled. Our rules prohibit the display of sexually explicit images on the computers, and we have very little problem with violators.

I would like to end by pointing you to an excellent essay about Huckleberry Finn and censorship written by a Middle School student in Castle Rock. I know the family; it is all her own work.

And note that the Internet filtering system in at least one Colorado high school prevented anyone there from reading this fine essay.


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