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?