A City Council committee is scheduled today to consider what to do about people who want to look at pornography on public library computers.
The Arts, Parks, Health and Aging Committee asked for input from the City Attorney's office after the Chinatown Public Library in early January received complaints. People told librarians that adults and children waiting in line to check out books could see someone watching pornography on a 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 a motion to address the issue.
Reyes said it's the only incident to be reported.
"I don't want to make it more than what it is, but how many incidents have not been reported?" Reyes asked. "Why not create a layout that allows screens and images to be shielded."
At issue is the fact that pornography is protected speech under the First Amendment.
"There's never a constitutional right to unprotected speech," said Deputy City Attorney Basia Jankowski.
"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."
As it regards libraries, "the Supreme Court has not squarely dealt with the issue," said Eugene Volokh, a constitutional law professor at UCLA School of Law.
Volokh said the Supreme Court did hear a case in 2003, U.S. v. American Library Association, in which the Supreme Court 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.
However, Volokh said the city could have a plausible argument for banning pornography in its public libraries.
"Clearly the city is entitled to decide what books to buy for libraries," Volokh said.
The city could also make a resource-based argument that there are a limited number of computers and wants to make sure they are used for worthwhile things, such as research.
"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," said Volokh.
The problem with filtering software has been that it either filters too much or not enough.
Jankowski said whether to use an Internet filter is a policy decision that will have to be made by library officials.