Porn surfing in public libraries reflects poorly on First Amendment. Can Washington do something about it?

The Wichita Eagle

Librarians are known for shushing noisy patrons, but that’s not the only rule they have to enforce. At the Pierce County Library System’s 20 locations, a code of conduct authorizes staff to clamp down on serious misbehavior, such as property damage, as well as lesser disruptions, such as offensive bodily hygiene.

But what if an adult is observed watching pornography on a library computer? That’s one repulsive activity librarians typically let go — even though children might be exposed to smut, such as an incident last fall at the Gig Harbor branch.

Public library staff are averse to policing adult internet use because they aren’t just caretakers of books and materials; they’re also stewards of the First Amendment.

We respect the librarians’ role and trust them to exercise good judgment when managing their on-site collections. But the digital age has unleashed such a lawless stream of material into the public sphere — more firehose than faucet — that librarians could use some gatekeeping help.

Washington House Bill 1635 strikes a fairly reasonable balance. It aims to keep peep shows out of community libraries without unduly restricting the flow of information.

The bill, which had a public hearing this week, would require local libraries to adopt internet safety policies and install across-the-board pornography filters. Naturally, it has strong appeal among parents and child advocates.

Its No. 1 supporter is Gig Harbor mom Kaeley Triller; she and her young daughter stumbled on a man watching porn while they were using the local library printer for a school project last fall.

“I could describe in vivid detail the nature of the things I saw on that screen with my 7-year-old daughter, and I think I’d probably be asked to stop,” Triller told the House Local Government Committee on Monday.

“That porn remained on that screen until I asked the man to remove it,” she added, noting that a librarian would not confront the man on her behalf.

Rep. Michelle Caldier, R-Port Orchard, sponsored legislation after learning about Triller’s unwelcome encounter. By requiring porn-screening technology on all library computers, her bill would augment tools that libraries already use to protect kids; Pierce County Library System, for instance, equips all computers in the children and teen sections with filters, and has privacy screens and recessed monitors on other computers.

Under the bill, any adult could ask library staff to temporarily disable the filter. Having to take this extra step makes sense and would scare off some creeps, but we’re concerned the request must be for “bona fide research or other lawful purposes.” This language ought to be removed. Gaining unfettered access should not hang on a content-based interrogation, and librarians shouldn’t have to judge what’s bona fide and what’s not.

While Caldier’s bill needs work, it’s not inconsistent with a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling, which said porn-screening filters at public libraries don’t violate constitutional free-speech protections. The court majority aptly described the internet as “a vast river of information,” and said filters aren’t so onerous that they reduce it to“a bare trickle, or a few drops.”

But that ruling affirmed libraries’ prerogative to use screening technology if they choose. HB1635 would mandate that they install it. Not surprisingly, it faces resistance from state library associations.

The Pierce County Library System, for its part, is officially neutral on the bill. That’s probably wise. Voters narrowly approved the library system’s property tax levy in November, and any appearance of condoning obscenity could hurt its standing among families.

“We want to ensure the libraries are welcoming to all people,” a library spokeswoman said. “Later this year we will be talking with the public to ensure the libraries are welcoming to all people.”

But being welcoming to people who indulge pornographic impulses in public places is never a good idea. House Bill 1635 sends that message loud and clear.