Position Paper: GLBT Internet Use and Filtering in Public Libraries

(This Position Paper is written from the point of view of a hypothetical public library  It was written for the “Information Policy” course at the University of Iowa School of Library and Information Science. )

“The library has received complaints that adult library patrons are using library computers to access websites with lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender (LGBT) themes, and that these websites are pornographic or at least unsuitable for children to see.  Concerned patrons have requested increased filtering on library computers.

“After looking into these complaints, the library staff has concluded that the library computer area does indeed have a strong LGBT presence.  However, the websites in question are neither explicitly sexual nor obscene.  They relate to activities and issues such as gay-friendly ocean cruises and LGBT housing options.

“Some patrons might be of the opinion that all homosexual and transgender websites are harmful to children regardless of the specific content.  But if we choose to block these websites, we risk ostracizing our LGBT patrons by limiting their access to valuable community resources.  Internet filters could be turned off on a case-by-case basis per patron request, but this puts patron privacy at risk.  In fact, in Justice Stevens’ opinion regarding U.S. vs ALA, he likened this practice to putting all the library materials in unmarked, locked rooms or cabinets, which could only be opened in response to specific requests.  “Some curious readers would in time obtain access to the hidden materials, but many would not.  Inevitably, the interest of the authors of those works in reaching the widest possible audience would be abridged.”

“We recommend keeping library Internet filters at current levels. We all want to protect our children from online sexual predators and pornographic content, and current policy (CIPA) requires the library to filter material that is obscene, child pornography or harmful to minors.   Clearly, the websites in question—e.g. sites for tourism and housing— do not fall into this category.  In lieu of increased filters, we propose the implementation of privacy screens at all computers.  This will have the twofold benefit of increasing patron privacy while reducing the individual’s risk of accidental exposure to undesirable material.

“As a designated “limited public forum,” the library has an obligation to the community not to censor constitutionally protected free speech.  LGBT content might be contrary to some patrons’ values or tastes, but this is not an appropriate reason to censor content.  Parents who are concerned about their children’s exposure to LGBT issues might choose to more closely supervise their children’s library use.  We do not believe it is the role of the library, in loco parentis, to shelter children from awareness of diverse ideologies.

“The library wishes to foster an atmosphere of cooperation and acceptance in our community, and to marginalize the LGBT community by blocking homosexual and transgender web content is contrary to that goal.  Some people might believe that homosexual and transgender websites should not be allowed in a public setting funded by federal tax dollars; that these websites should only be accessed in the privacy of one’s own home for a cost.  However, this way of thinking adversely affects patrons who do not have personal computers at home and have to come to the library to use the public computers.  In fact, many of our Internet users are elderly and fall into this category.

“With increased filters, we would also run the risk of over-blocking websites of vital importance to the LGBT community, such as the Queer Resources Directory, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE) and the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).  As GLAAD itself has pointed out, blocking these sites would be akin to blocking organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League or the NAACP for the work that they do.   Keyword filtering software is notoriously overbroad and has been known to filter out topics such as Breast Cancer research, Middlesex county and Anti-Drug brochures.   Even with options such as protocol blocking and host or site blocking that puts more control in the hands of the library and less in the hands of the filtering software vendor, we would still be blocking homosexual and transgender websites and therefore alienating these patrons and their friends and families.

“Of course, our children’s safety is of utmost importance, and we believe that current filtering levels will continue to protect our children.  We hope this decision is within the boundaries of our greater community values, as a lack of community support could result in loss of funding and ultimately the loss of resources for the very same LGBT patrons whose Internet use is at stake.  By keeping Internet filters at their current level, LGBT patrons will continue to freely access information that is pertinent to them, and the library will maintain its responsibility to allow constitutionally protected speech for all the members of our community.”

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