Public libraries have faced many types of issues concerning censorship since early in its history. With the rise in popularity in electronic technology, the most recent target of censorship has been the internet, moving past the age old medium of printed material.
The internet has grown in popularity from a private government program that connected elite scholars and scientist in the wake of nuclear attack to a very public medium where one is able to obtain information if any kind. Since one of the purpose of a public library is to grant free access of information to it’s patrons, it was inevitable that public libraries would move to bring the internet into their buildings so that their patrons would have access. With the internet each person can choose the type of information that they would like to access without having the “hand of the library” to choose for them.
Many think that the instant access to the insurmountable amount of information that is stored on the internet may not be used solely for intellectual purposes. Many think that access to certain parts of the internet should not be accessible to the general public.
By reviewing the following:
1. How the Government Tried to Censor the Internet
2. Arguments for Censorship of the Internet
3. Arguments against Censorship of the Internet
it will be shown that a broad censorship ruling by the government is not necessary and is detrimental to free speech and free access to information.
How the Government Tried to Censor the Internet
The government has attempted to control access to material that is deemed “not suitable for public viewing”. One of the government’s first attempts to do this was with the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Many parts of this act were deemed unconstitutional so the act failed. Two years later, Congress tried another attempt to censor the internet with the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (Fourie & Dowell p.216) This act posed a narrower view of censorship of the internet:
“Child Online Protection Act makes it a crime for anyone, by means of the World Wide Web, to make any communication for commercial purposes that is harmful to minors…”(Center for Democracy and Technology. Available: http://www.cdt.org/speech/cda/ (Accessed August 4, 2000))
Arguments For Censorship of the Internet
The main reason why so many have campaigned for the censorship of the internet in public libraries is to protect the interest of children. With the internet having such a broad range of information, which includes pornography along with many educational materials, many have wanted to restrict children’s access to some of those websites that many have deemed inappropriate. Gary Glenn, president of the Michigan branch of the American Family Association (AFA) made a valiant push for censorship of the internet of the public library in Holland, Michigan. Glenn argued;
“Libraries need filters because children may accidentally stumble across pornography on the internet and become permanently scarred by it.”(Church & State April, 2000, p.18)
This same sentiment has been voiced by concerned parents, wanting to make sure that their children did not have full access to the “unacceptable” websites on the internet. Linda McCulloch of Colorado Springs, Colorado dislikes letting her fourteen year old son visit the local public library in fear that her son will become susceptible to the whims of the internet. McCulloch stated that;
“We need some kind of filtering system. The internet has things that are holy and it has things that are horrific.”(Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service August 4, 1999, p.8)
Arguments against the Censorship of the Internet
As said before, the claim protecting children has been the basis of most of the arguments for censorship of the internet. Many opponents of the censorship of the internet say that these claims are overblown and exaggerated. In a viewpoint submitted to the National Commission on Library and Information Science on December 14, 1998, it clearly stated that there was not a distinct connection with public library internet access and the “predation by pedophiles”.(Free Speech, p.1)
Many opponents of the censorship of the internet continue to say that current internet restrictions may hinder the legitimate use of the internet and do it in a discriminatory way.
Current internet filters filter websites on the basis of certain words so that those looking for information on breast cancer, for instance, would be denied access to that information. In the court case Mainstream Loudoun vs. Loudoun County Library Board, the Mainstream Loudoun opinion (written by a judge who was a former librarian), wrote that the current filters on their libraries computers were unconstitutional. This opinion also stated that there was little or no evidence that unfiltered internet access was harmful.
“The only evidence to which defendant can point in support of it’s argument that the Policy is necessary consists of a record of a single complaint arising from internet use in another Virginia library and reports of isolated incidents in three other libraries across the county.”(Free Speech, p.2)
In taking in both sides of the argument of internet censorship, one could come to the conclusion that although there is evidence to suggest that children should not be privy to some material that is contained on the internet, there is not enough evidence to create a federal mandate that would require all public libraries to introduce filters in their libraries. To deal with this conflict, public libraries should be free to determine the amount censorship in their own libraries. The amount of censorship should be consistent with the values of the community that they serve, much like the way that it chooses the books, magazines, and newspapers that it places on its shelves.
(April 2000). Michigan Town Rejects Censorship Plan For Public Library. Church & State. p.18
Barbour, S. (2000) Free Speech Retrieved 11/19/03 Gale Viewpoints Resource Center: Http://www.galenet.galegroup.com
Fourie, D. & Dowell, D. (2002) Libraries in the Information Age. Colorado: Libraries Unlimited.
Sampson, O. (1999). Censoring the Internet; a technological twist on an age old debate. Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. p. K6731