L.A. City Council to Discuss Porn Filtering at Public Libraries

Apr 12, 2011 1:00 PM PST

LOS ANGELES — A Los Angeles City Council committee meeting is scheduled for today to consider how people can view porn in public libraries.

According to reports, the meeting was sparked after the Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee asked the City’s Attorney’s office for a sit down after complaints from people who visited the Chinatown public library in January and said adults and children waiting in line to check out books could see porn on a nearby customer’s computer.

"We want to figure out the best way to prevent children and families from being able to see images that are pornographic in nature or offensive,'' said Councilman Ed Reyes, who introduced the motion.

It was the only such incident reported.

However, Reyes said, "I don't want to make it more than what it is, but how many incidents have not been reported? Why not create a layout that allows screens and images to be shielded?''

The issue is a sticky one because porn is protected speech under the 1st Amendment.

"There's never a constitutional right to unprotected speech,'' Deputy City Attorney Basia Jankowski said.

She added, "That includes depictions that are obscene and child pornography. It's an 'I know it when I see it' situation. There's not a black and white definition.''

Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at UCLA School of Law, commented on how the porn issue relates to libraries and said "the Supreme Court has not squarely dealt with the issue.”

He noted that the Supreme Court heard a case in 2003, U.S. vs. American Library Association, in which it ruled that it is constitutional to use Internet filtering software to block pornography, until a patron asks for it to be unblocked. The Supreme Court did not rule on wholesale blocking of Internet pornography at public libraries.

"If the library says, 'No, we don't want to unblock. We don't want to subsidize this kind of material,' that's something that's not yet settled,'' Volokh said.

But Volokh pointed out that the city could argue for the ban of porn in its public libraries.

"Clearly the city is entitled to decide what books to buy for libraries,'' Volokh said.

The city could also claim that there are a limited number of computers and wants to make sure they are used for research and other worthwhile searches.

And using Internet filtering software may not be a solution as it could inadvertently block sites other than porn.

"The city could also just say this is not something we want to spend taxpayer money on. If the issue had to do with view points, like blocking access to racist sites, that argument probably would not fly,'' Volokh said.

Jankowski said the use an Internet filter is a policy decision that will have to be made by library officials.

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