Kids Get an Eyeful At Public Library
LOS FELIZ—The parents of a group of Thomas Starr King middle schoolers were recently surprised to discover their children had been exposed to more than just books at the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL).
According to King parent Greg Brouwer, his 6th grade son and several of his friends witnessed a library patron watching pornography on one of the nine computers in the main area of the library’s Los Feliz branch in September.
Brouwer said the children often walk to the library to do their homework after school, as King offers no free afterschool program.
“We thought [the library] would be a good option as a safe place for the kids to go after school and do homework,” said Brouwer.
And that seemed to be the case until last month, when according to Brouwer, he went to pick his son up from the library and learned of the incident.
“When my son got in the car he said, ‘Dad, some man was watching porn in the library,’” said Brouwer.
King parent Christine Craven’s son is friends with Brouwer’s son, and according to her, he also saw the pornography.
Craven said she called the library the next day to complain, but the librarian she spoke with told her there was nothing she could do, beyond possibly asking the patron to move to a different computer.
Additionally, said Craven, the librarian told her it was illegal for libraries to use Internet filtering software.
But according to Los Angeles Public Library Public Relations and Marketing Director Peter V. Persic, “Not using filters is a [Los Angeles] library policy, not a legal requirement.”
In some cases, libraries are actually required to use such filters. According to the Child Internet Protection Act—which was signed into law in 2000 and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2003—libraries receiving specific types of federal funding must use software that filters out images considered to be obscene.
However, according to Persic, Los Angeles libraries receive no such funding, and can therefore choose whether or not to use blocking software.
Persic said the library’s decision not to use filters is an issue of “balancing people’s legal right to access material that some may find controversial or distasteful,” while still “maintaining a safe and welcoming environment.”
According to Persic, the library takes precautions to ensure children do not view age-inappropriate material, including installing privacy screens on all computers, and utilizing a program called Kids Path to curate—but not filter—the Internet on computers located in the library’s children’s section.
However, due to space issues, many of the computers at the small Los Feliz branch are clearly visible from the book checkout line, privacy screens notwithstanding, and according to Craven, this is how her son was exposed to the pornography.
“Even the kids’ section is in very close proximity to the main area and computers,” said Craven.
According to a 1997 resolution by the American Library Assoc. (ALA), the use of filtration software is a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech, and could put libraries at risk for litigation.
“Research demonstrates that filters consistently both over and under block the content they claim to filter,” according to a 2015 ALA analysis.
Further, according to the analysis, blocking public access to certain sites disenfranchises those who cannot afford private Internet access, as well as certain minorities.
“[O]ften minority viewpoints, religions, or controversial topics are included in the categories of what is considered objectionable or offensive. Filters thus become the tool of bias and discrimination,” it reads.
King parent Kirby Pringle, whose son was also in the group of kids exposed to the pornography, said, due to the ubiquity of Internet access at schools and on smart phones, he doesn’t think filtering library computers would solve the problem.
“I do think that a library should be a safe space for kids where they shouldn’t be exposed to [pornography],” he said. “But I also think it’s a bigger issue than that. I think [internet pornography] should be banned. I don’t think it should be streamed on the Internet at all.”
In 2011, the Los Angeles Times reported on a similar issue at the LAPL’s Chinatown branch. In that case, the problem was resolved by reorienting the computers so that screens were not visible from common areas.
When asked if a similar solution might work for the Los Feliz branch, LAPL Marketing Director Persic said the library “could consider alternate positions for the computers,” but did not indicate whether they planned to do so.
Los Feliz Branch Head Librarian Pearl Yonezawa declined to comment on this story.