The Wonderful Awful World Online


There isn’t a subtle way of putting this: pornography in the public library is an awful quagmire issue. I’m not talking about the illegal variety since that is actually rather easy to resolve. (Step 1: Call police.) It is the rest of it, the legal variety, that is rather loathsome in its ability to shape and skew conversations about internet access at the library.

On the one hand (no pun intended), it is a legally protected speech. As repugnant as it is to some people, it is permissible for an adult to be viewing the non-obscene sexual content. Non-obscene is a key word that sentence since obscenity is something that the government is empowered to curtail or prohibit and obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment. How is something determined to be obscene? This is done by the Miller test, a three part criteria established by the Supreme Court to determine whether an expression can be labeled obscene. It reads:

  • Whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards", would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
  • Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law,
  • Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

While the first two parts are apply at the local level, the third is tested at a national level. The idea is that the third criteria acts as a balance to the first two; in other words, one local community cannot make something obscene for the rest of the country except for the most egregious of content that would reach a national consensus. It should be noted that the Miller test was established in 1973, long before the rise of the internet as a common social ground. However, current Supreme Court rulings have supported the test as it currently appears.

On the other hand, despite falling into the minority of computer use at the library, it can create an awkward social environment at the library. Even under the most permissible of computer use policies, there are going to be other adults who are bothered by this kind of computer use. Whether they are angered at their tax dollars being used that way, upset by the sexual acts being depicted on the screen, or offended that such expression is protected by the First Amendment, it creates an conflicting issue at the library. Although correct in certain ways, the reply akin to “just don’t look” or a recitation of the internet usage policy does not assuage what that offended patron is feeling or experiencing. Granted, an explanation of the First Amendment and the Miller test might not also go over well either, but this can be a chance to find a better solution that allows people to view protected expression while also minimizing exposure to those who are offended by it.

For myself, there are questions that this kind of conversation always brings up in mind when it comes to permissible content. For the people who oppose this kind of content being viewed in public, is that the sum total of the limits? Is it just sexual content?

What about violence? Should violence be considered obscene? Could I watch raw war footage? Videos of IEDs blowing up American soldiers or the execution of Daniel Pearl? Depictions of being committing suicide (either people jumping off the World Trade towers during 9/11, the Golden Gate bridge, or the Bud Dwyer shooting himself during a press conference)? Video captures of domestic violence or organized street fights?

What about hate expressions? Could I watch a Ku Klux Klan rally?  Or Neo Nazi meetings? Could I watch that same rally or meeting with my child sitting on my lap? (And, for the sake of argument, none of these rallies are calling for violence towards minorities, just the superiority of their belief systems.) I do realize that hate speech has a longer history of being protected, but I have simply included it as another form of speech that creates conflict.

For the people who support this kind of content being viewed in public, I have my own questions. What can be done to accommodate the viewer while offering some shielding to outside observers? Can we as librarians make changes in order to limit conflict? When and where are privacy screens or blinders appropriate? (And for those who say that those don’t work, it’s not a silver bullet solution. None of these are.) How can we better explain and work with people on both sides of this equation?

18 thoughts on “The Wonderful Awful World Online

  1. Even if we could have separate rooms with “Adults only! 18+” signs hanging up, would librarians feel comfortable entering the room? Would it make things better to have this separate room like video rental stores did with it’s porn collection? This situation, like you outlined, has no simple solution.

  2. Hmm. This is the kind of problem that makes me glad to work at an academic library – I’ve never known it to come up where I work.

    This always has puzzled me. In many cases pornography can be pretty clearly identified as pornography in terms of the Miller test, and in that case there isn’t any first amendment basis on which to insist that one must be allowed to view it in a public library. (It’s perfectly legal to possess it – the only question is whether it’s legal for a library to suppress it, and I’m not sure why libraries think it would be illegal unless they just don’t want to make a Miller determination.) Hate speech and depictions of violence are protected speech; obscene speech is not.

    I’m pretty kneejerk about first amendment free speech claims, but if the courts say it’s not protected speech why should libraries go out of their way to protect access to it, particularly when it makes libraries a hostile place for those who object to it?

    • Your last question pretty much sums it up.

      Although, what makes it acceptable in one form and not in another? There are a plethora of depictions of sex in books in the library (and not just simply in the romance section); how can it be protected in one and not in another? You could say it’s context, that the depictions in the books do not broadcast like the depictions on the computer monitor. But would we have to examine every instance it appears?

      It is a ‘content vs container’ question in essence. Personally, I find the limiting of expression loathsome, but I’m not immune to the other arguments around the conditions it creates around it in the library.

  3. We ran into this recently, with a patron viewing explicit — although not pornographic — content on one of our computers, which is visible to every one passing by. At least one library worker was hugely offended, and we finally decided to apply a test of no visible genitalia, from either the patron or the video subject. Close, but — to coin a phrase — no cigar.

    • I’ve had that situation as well in which a patron was upset by the content, but it was not explicit. (I’d say it’s was the ‘sexy workout’ variety.) It’s unfortunate that we have to come up with these kinds of tests in order to provide rough guidelines as to what is appropriate or not.

    • Isn’t it the case in most places that if a patron objects to something (or a number of patrons) then the library reacts to change or stop what is bothersome? For instance, unless someone is loud to an obnoxious level, we don’t ask someone to be quiet until another patron objects to the noise. Granted, this is not a great solution. And how do academic libraries deal with it if a student decides to watch porn as a de-stressor?

      • Personally, I enforce common courtesy. That includes an upper limit on noise unless there is literally no one else around. Even then, it depends.

  4. I got a few comments by non librarians on my blog, their gut reactions are ban it, but I understand it’s more complicated than that. I think a separate area with cameras through to the reference desk and patrons warned they are on camera and any innapproaite behavior and they will be aked to leave. Agree, lots of speech is awful, but libraries should have it, as long as it’s legal.

    • The reverse end of this is getting sued because it is legal speech. It’s not a great place to be stuck in the middle.

      • I’m curious – has a library ever been sued because they prohibited someone from viewing something online that they considered obscene? I’m not trolling – I honestly don’t know. It would be an interesting test case.

        • The closest you would get (to my knowledge) is the Dean Marney case out in Washington. The short version is that if a site is blocked you have to request the site to be unblocked; there is no removal of filtering at the request of an adult patron. And they can say no to the request if it doesn’t meet their policy requirements. (Sarah has a bunch of links to it in her blog post on filters: The state supreme court held that the library was within its rights to do this, although it has yet to make its way through the federal court systems. Considering that one of the reasons CIPA was upheld is that an adult could ask for the filter to be removed, it should prove very interesting.

          I would never say you were trolling, Barbara. You always ask great questions! 😀

  5. At two places I’ve worked we’ve incorporated the viewing of “offensive” material into our sexual harassment prohibition. Material could be viewed as long as no one else could see it or hear it. Of course we worked hard to have no hidden seating areas and punishment/violation could mean expulsion from law school or, for non-law students, banning from either the law library or campus.

  6. When the video of the execution of Daniel Pearl was released on to the internet I had a patron who wanted me to find it for him. I found a few whose descriptions fit and gave him the addresses but told him I wasn’t sure because I didn’t watch them. He said that it was my job to watch the videos to make sure they were what he wanted. I informed him that I was not going to watch material of that nature and that if he had a problem with it he could take it up with the library director. I never heard any thing about it after that.
    We also had a number of people who would view and their suicide and violence pictures, sometimes leaving them up for others (especially children) to find. I tended to find this more offensive than the pornography.

    • Yeah, that sounds exactly like students I’ve helped (both college and high school) who thought I would read every single article on their search result to ensure that it was on the right topic. Uh, no.

  7. From my library’s internet policy:

    “Use of the Internet to access sites that are obscene, have child pornography, or contain material harmful to minors is prohibited.”

    I think that makes it pretty clear. It might not be against the last to view pornography, but I feel we have the right to make our libraries as friendly to as many people as possible. If that means we have to enforce a “no porn” rule, then I have no problem with it, even if it is legal.

  8. As far as I’m concerned *viewing* pornography in the library is outside of the scope of the mission of public libraries. Consequently, I see no problem disallowing it in the library. Consistent with that, public libraries are limited public forums, not open public forums, so we do have some leeway in prohibiting certain types of behavior. Our library considers viewing pornography disruptive behavior, and we don’t allow it.

    And, yes, we use filters because we accept E-rate money. And, no, they are not perfect, but we do *not* use keyword filtering, so they underblock rather than overblock. We have had very few instances of overblocking with this setup, but we can and have adjusted the filter for a few sites that were incorrectly blocked. The underblocking is sometimes a problem, but has not led to nearly as many issues as we ran into before we used filters.

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s