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Porn Viewing on NYPL Computers is Protected Speech

April 29, 2011

I think this is an excellent good way to wrap up my abstracts. The New York Public Library has a policy that allows patrons to view porn on public computers if they so choose. Library officials say that this falls under the protection of the First Amendment. Unsurprisingly, this is not sitting well with some religious leaders, patrons, and librarians. NYPL computers so feature extensions that allow patrons to block other people’s view of their screen, but this does not affect other patrons ability to hear the porn. Still, there are others who do not believe it is the librarians’ role to censor patrons, no matter what their interests. Free speech does not just pertain to things that a certain population or 5-year-olds find palatable. To receive federal funding, libraries must install filters on public computers that block content containing illegal obscenity and child pornography, which library officials say they are following to the letter. The filters can be turned off by patrons older than 17. This “kept the free speech protection in place but also raised the necessary roadblocks to keep the library from losing its federal funding.” To further restrict viewing, localities must adopt a new policy, which has the potential to open up another can of legal worms.

This is an ancient issue, probably trotted back out recently because a patron got a little hot under the collar and “porn” in a headline really grabs the eye, but it always brings up some fun free speech discussions. As Captain Fair Use, you can probably guess where I land in this debate, but at the same time, I don’t understand why anyone would want to view porn at a library. I’m sure there are some who get off on that sort of thing, the voyeuristic or exhibitionist element or something, but still. My experience with porn at libraries falls at two ends of the spectrum. At FCDL, we had the sort of filter where you can choose the level of filter that you want, one of which is no filter. We also had an Internet policy, which of course no one ever read, that stated that you were not to view porn on public computers. People certainly watched it despite this rule, but as we were not hovering librarians, we didn’t know about it unless someone complained.

I was very surprised when I started working at MCPL and learned that they did not have filters or a policy forbidding porn viewing. At the same time, if a patron complains, security will do a walk-by. It took some getting used to, but now I think it’s one of the most awesome things about MCPL. They are obsessively devoted to protecting free speech and universal access for their patrons, which is not something you see very often.

“City libraries say ‘checking out’ porn protected by First Amendment” by Douglas Montero and Bob Fredericks in the New York Post

“Pornography Is Protected Speech At New York Public Libraries” by Eydar Peralta in NPR News Blog

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