Internet controversy
2:25 pm
Wed February 1, 2012

Dustup over porn at Seattle library puts issue back in limelight

“Mommy, what’s that?” Normally an innocent question from a child … unless you’re at a Seattle Public Library!

Libraries around the country are frequently troubled by the conflict of your First Amendment right to view “protected speech” and others who just have to watch pornography in a public library setting.

The most recent publicly exposed incident in Seattle occurred at the Lake City branch of the Seattle library system. Julie Howe said in a public email that her 10-year-old daughter was disturbed after looking over the shoulder of a man last month as he watched pornography at the branch.

Here’s her story as printed in the Lake City Live blog:

I was at the Lake City Library with my two daughters (7 & 10 years old) at 4:45 on Sunday, January 22, 2012. I left them in the children’s section and went to look through the movie section, where I noticed that a man was watching hard core pornography (including anal penetration & other adult content) on a computer where the screen was facing out into the library. 

I told the librarian and asked for help in having him move to a more discreet location. She could see the screen from the information desk where we were standing and was sympathetic, but said that the library doesn’t censor content and they can’t be in the business of monitoring what their patrons are doing at any given computer. 

I then asked the man to please move to another computer.  He declined.  In the process of this interaction, I didn’t notice that my daughters had wandered over looking for me and one of them saw what was playing on the screen.

High court gave library right to filter

Andra Addison, spokeswoman for the Seattle Public Library, told the Seattlepi.com:

"We're a library, so we facilitate access to constitutionally protected information," she said. "We don't tell people what they can view and check out ... Filters compromise freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. We're not in the business of censoring information."

However, in 2010 the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of a library that had taken a much less permissive attitude toward porn on its computers. The court ruled that public libraries in Washington can filter Internet content to block things like pornography.

Please watch out for pornography

Howe says she understands the predicament the library is in, but wants there to at least be signs warning patrons to watch out where they look.

On Tuesday afternoon, at the Lake City branch of the library, Howe told her story to the Seattle Times. The Times reporter writes that all the public computers were in use — people on Facebook, reading and writing email, playing online Bingo.

"And there was one quiet guy, watching the screen intently. It was showing porn."

Seattle’s not the only one

New Yorkers can watch internet porn at the city's public libraries thanks to a policy of free speech protected by the First Amendment, the New York Post reported in April.

"Customers can watch whatever they want on the computer," said Brooklyn Public Library spokeswoman Malika Granville, describing the anything-goes philosophy that is the rule at the city's 200-plus branches.

The ruling had religious leaders and library patrons fuming in the Big Apple, the paper wrote.

"What they're doing is publicly funding an appetite for the most debased fare available," said Catholic League President Bill Donohue. "It's not like a Playboy centerfold anymore -- it's far worse."