King County Library System’s Internet policy is unchanged after court ruling

May 8, 2012

By Warren Kagarise

The use of software to filter Internet content for library patrons received support in a recent federal court ruling.

Officials at the King County Library System filter Internet content at public computers, although library patrons can have the filter deactivated. The library system uses a tiered system of filters to determine patrons’ access to Internet content.

In April, Eastern Washington Federal District Court Judge Edward F. Shea ruled the Wenatchee-based North Central Regional Library did not violate the First Amendment by installing Internet filtering software on computers for all library patrons.

Under a policy adopted in August 2003, the Issaquah-based library system provides access to the Internet on all public computers and uses Internet filtering software.

Library patrons can request unfiltered access to the Internet on public computers.

“Unfiltered access is available on request to those 17 years of age or older,” said Holly Koelling, King County Library System director of public services. “We do not require them to tell us why or justify that. If they request it, we provide it, but all adult patrons start with an initial filtering level.”

Under the federal Child Internet Protection Act, all adult library patrons must initially have filtered access to the Internet. Staffers set library cards for patrons 17 and older to a default filtering level to block access to pornography, malicious software, known as malware, and other unwanted software.

Staffers set library cards for all patrons under 17 at a default filtering level to block access to pornography and content geared for adults. The filter also blocks racist and violent content, plus malware.

The library system offers a more restrictive filter to block access to content related to alcohol, tobacco, weapons and other content, in addition to pornography and other materials blocked for patrons younger than 17. The most restrictive level also blocks access to email and instant messaging services.

Every computer in the children’s areas at King County Library System libraries is set to the most restrictive filter. Patrons can request the most restrictive filter for adults and children.

The library system’s original Internet policy debuted in 1994. Library staff conducted the most recent update in February.

Nadine Strossen, a New York Law School professor and former American Civil Liberties Union national president, advised library system staffers on Internet policies at a recent retreat.

System trustees also questioned staffers about the policy’s possible impacts.

“They’re always very interested in hearing what the public perception is, what people are experiencing and what there is that we might be able do to accommodate all in an environment, and whether we’ve taken all the steps that we can to best serve a wide range of needs and interests,” Koelling said.

‘Sanctuaries for people of all ages’

The recent court ruling came after the ACLU of Washington demanded for the North Central Regional Library to remove the Internet filter if adult library patrons requested its removal.

The library system filters adult images, pornography and gambling categories on public computers.

The decision followed a ruling from the state Supreme Court in May 2010. The high court ruled the North Central Regional Library did not violate the Washington Constitution.

The 28-branch North Central Regional Library is the largest library district in the state. The agency operates libraries in Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant and Okanogan counties.

“Common sense and taxpayers are the winners in this case,” North Central Regional Library Director Dean Marney said in a statement. “The courts have affirmed that public libraries have the right to be libraries. Libraries should never be forced to use public funds to provide access to child pornography or to become illegal casinos. Libraries should be sanctuaries for people of all ages.”

‘There’s bound to be some conflict’

In the King County system, Internet safety for patrons extends beyond filtering software, and in some cases extends to libraries’ floorplans, Koelling said.

Plastic privacy screens cover computer monitors to limit viewing, although passers-by can still catch glimpses through the screens.

“We have banks of computers close to each other, and although privacy screens are present, people can see at various spaces and moments what other people are looking at,” Koelling said. “Some things are easier to inadvertently view than others.”

The library system must balance First Amendment rights and federal law, as well as patrons’ safety and tastes.

“People feel very strongly. All of us have our convictions, our beliefs, our concerns, things that really bother us, things that we really stand behind and support,” Koelling said. “When you put all of those people together — which we love to do as a library system — into one space, taking advantage of all this incredible information and activity, there’s bound to be some conflict.”

The policy is designed, she said, to address concerns and needs of as many patrons as possible.

“We recognize that and we do everything that we can to support everyone’s fair use of the space, and we recognize that people do take offense and feel strong concerns and strong convictions about things that other people find perfectly reasonable, rational and normal,” Koelling said.

Most Internet-related complaints from patrons stem from other library users viewing pornography, although the staff is prepared for other scenarios.

“It is possible, for example, that someone could sit down next to another individual who was viewing something negative about a particular religious group or race, and speak to us about it,” Koelling said. “In which case, we would obviously, unless illegal, protect the rights of all of them to view what they choose to be viewing, and we don’t judge the reasons why.”

Issaquah resident Candice Hoffman said the tiered system does not offer enough safeguards for children and library patrons offended by pornographic material.

In January 2011, Hoffman and her then-12-year-old son noticed a man viewing pornography on a computer at the Issaquah Library.

“This guy was looking at really hardcore stuff in really large images, and I was shocked,” she said.

Hoffman said a library staffer explained the system’s policy. The librarian offered to ask the man to stop viewing the pornography, but Hoffman said the overall policy related to Internet pornography needs to be changed.

Upset about the incident, she stopped using the library.

“It doesn’t belong in the middle of the grocery store. It doesn’t belong in our schools. It doesn’t belong in the library,” Hoffman said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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