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Despite Library Association's views, pornography not protected

James Dash Jr., who is unemployed, uses a computer to look for work at the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009.
James Dash Jr., who is unemployed, uses a computer to look for work at the central branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia in Philadelphia, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009.
Associated Press

Librarians can be strict. In Seattle, for example, you can't eat, sleep, go barefoot or be noisy in a public library. You can, however, "watch graphic porn on a public computer in front of kids," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently reported.

You don't need to be a literary expert to figure out that making computer porn available is not the highest and best use of limited public resources. And certainly patrons, whose tax payments keep the doors open, deserve better than to have their children exposed to hard-core pornography.

As a former chairman of a metropolitan library system, the story from Seattle appalled me. But it didn't surprise me at all.

Sadly, Seattle is following a strategy promoted by the American Library Association, which regards pornography as just a routine aspect of protecting the First Amendment. But they generally omit an important qualifier: When taxpayers are paying for the computers they have a right to insist that children are protected.

I know because I authored the federal law on this, and it has passed muster with the Supreme Court. In 2003, the high court upheld The Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in United States v. American Library Association. Earlier federal attempts to address the problem had all been rejected by the court.

The 6-3 ruling affirmed the constitutionality of CIPA, which requires public schools and libraries that receive Internet-related federal funds to use blocking filters to restrict access to pornography.

The Supreme Court agreed that the Internet is "no more than a technological extension of the book stack." The justices wrote that each public library has "its traditional role in identifying suitable and worthwhile material; it is no less entitled to play that role when it collects material from the Internet. ... Most libraries already exclude pornography from their print collections because they deem it inappropriate for inclusion. ... It would make little sense to treat libraries' judgments to block online pornography any differently."

Because "libraries cannot possibly segregate, item by item, all the Internet material that is appropriate for inclusion from all that is not," the Supreme Court agreed that using filters to exclude categories of websites is appropriate and constitutional.

Adults who so request may have the filter temporarily turned off, but this intervention gives librarians the opportunity to make sure no one is using an unfiltered computer in an area open to children and other patrons.

Although Congress' other approaches had been overturned, connecting this filtering requirement to receipt of federal funds was key to gaining Supreme Court approval, because use of government funds is commonly allowed to include restrictions.

Although many libraries now apply CIPA, others — encouraged by lawyers for the American Library Association — deliberately reject federal funds to avoid the requirement of filtering patrons' access to the Internet. Unconfirmed reports claim a third of our public libraries are using this tactic. They should not be criticized for not tapping into the federal Treasury, but their motivation is worrisome.

These libraries still rely upon public funds from the state or local level. Lawmakers who provide that funding have an opportunity to protect children. States and local governments can do so if they use CIPA as their model. They can require that schools and libraries funded by local and state governments must protect children from Internet porn by installing these software filters. No such filter is perfect, but they protect children and they help parents who want libraries to be safe places for their entire family.

Nobody should have the Seattle experience of shocking their children, nor of having librarians who are indifferent to the problem.

Ernest Istook, a fellow at The Heritage Foundation, served 14 years as a Republican congressman from Oklahoma.