freedom isn't free

In the City of Seattle, (in fact, in the State of Washington) you cannot screen pornographic videos in a bar. Keep in mind that WA State has some of the strictest rules governing the presence people under 21 years of age in places where alcohol is served. Unless you are a restaurant (defined I believe by a certain percentage of revenue coming from food, and it's fairly high) or one of a handful of large music venues that segregate drinkers into a holding pen, you cannot have anyone under 21 years of age on premises, ever, if you serve alcohol.

I only bring this up, because in the City of Seattle, you can watch porn in a public library.

Now, SPL has taken what I think is an admirable hard line on the First Amendment, here. In effect, the policy is that they will not censor constitutionally protected content accessed from their computers, period. (The computers in the children's sections do have internet filters. I really can't imagine anyone having a problem with that.) They do have a code of conduct regarding behavior of patrons, which in this context I have to assume means that you'd best keep your hands on the mouse and keyboard. I can see the logic of this. Never mind the philosophical slippery slope: once you start parsing what is and what isn't acceptable content for consumption at the library, you very well could end up devoting your already-stressed resources to little else. I also think it's understandable that library employees would prefer not to go around peeking over patrons' shoulders and policing what they are looking at.

Interestingly, the State does have a law on the books about exposing minors to sexually explicit content. However, it sets the standard rather high: you have to prove that exposing minors to content was intentional. (Presumably, that protects people whose kids wander in at an inopportune moment. Again, this seems pretty reasonable to me.)

So what to do? The libraries do have privacy screens on their computers, which are designed to obscure the view from anyone not viewing head-on. It would seem, based on the story linked above, that these do not work particularly well. 

I can't help but wonder if simply lining all computer stations up against the wall, so that the patron's back (and therefore the screen) is facing the wall, and nothing else, wouldn't go a long way towards minimizing the problem here.

In any case, I think SPL would do well to be proactive about this if they really care about their absolutist stance on non-censorship (which I support). To do less is to  invite the (frankly understandable) ire of parents whose children use the library, and for that matter, the vast majority of adults who'd rather not be around people watching porn in public. SPL clearly aren't addressing it adequately at the moment.

I'd hate to see the free flow of information be a casualty to their inability to arrange the furniture sensibly, is what I'm saying.


Gino said...

freedom of expression and exchange of ideas and all that... i'm all for it.

not quite so sure i would place porn in that catagory though.

if we spent as much time on info that really matters, like exposing what our politicians are really up to as we spend distributing the free flow of porn i'd say we be doing well.
but we arent.

Brian said...

I'm not here to defend the intrinsic merit of porn. But the "boundary issue" isn't trivial: without a clear, (relatively) non-subjective definition of what constitutes non-protected speech, you open the door to abridgment of speech from all directions. And then you have what you have in basically every western country except the US: certain politically unpopular viewpoints are actually illegal to express in public (i.e., hate speech laws, etc.)

I know I said I wasn't going to get into the slippery slope, but I guess it is kind of unavoidable.

That said: the SPL aren't the United States. They're taking a strong "First Amendment" stand as a matter of policy, not as a matter of constitutionality. There is no "right" to view anything in a public library, and I don't think anyone is asserting that.

My argument is that I agree with their policy, for both practical and philosophical reasons...BUT, I also think that they aren't taking adequate responsibility for the consequences of that policy (hence the headline).

Gino said...

ok. then i agree.