We have big economic fish to fry right now, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have healthy debate on other things. Our other problems may seem diminished, but they haven’t gone away. And freedom of information and speech matter at all times. For example, if any leading Republicans actually had some useful information right now… an alternative approach, an idea, anything… we’d happily pay attention to them.About information: In last week’s Mirror a reader wrote a letter to the editor making some well-reasoned arguments concerning the fact that, since our Santa Monica Public Libraries do not “filter” or otherwise censor the Internet, there can be events of library patrons viewing sexually explicit material. And to other patrons, that could easily be disturbing. Further there are dimensions to pornography or what we might reasonably call pornography, such as the letter’s cited “desensitization to a lack of human dignity”, that are unquestionably troubling.The author of the letter cited a definition of pornography as material that “depicts erotic behavior designed to cause sexual excitement.” We can agree on that being a characteristic of any materials we’d all sign off on as “porn.” But it’s also arguably true of a Cadillac commercial featuring the female star of “Private Practice”, of many fashion ads in the New York Times, of Cialis commercials, of half of all popular music since the 50’s and the blues songs American pop ripped off, of most magazines for sale at the airport, of half the action on “Dancing With The Stars”, of quite a bit of footage on the “Discovery” channel (if you’re a spawning salmon), of lingerie ads in daily newspapers—okay, let’s stop there. Whether it’s problematic or not, a library that adheres to the American Library Association’s policy supporting the right of individuals to choose materials for themselves is never between a rock and a hard place on Internet freedom: The Internet cannot be filtered by public libraries, for reasons we’ll discuss in a moment. So that only leaves the option of no Internet access in public libraries. There is no quandary: There’s either access or no access.You can’t filter the Internet for kids or anyone else because filters are triggered by key words, such as “boob”… which would prevent a student from accessing “boob tube” criticism for an essay on television or perhaps background on the management of General Motors. These jokes are easy and not that funny because we honestly can’t restrict Internet access based on how search engines work. Check out how Internet filtering is working out for everybody in China, but don’t enter “Chinese Boobs Try Censoring Internet.” Greg Mullen, Director of Library Services and City Librarian for Santa Monica, would not restrict Internet access. In a phone interview, Mullen stated that “the Internet provides a vast amount of information we could not hold in a building. And it would be inappropriate to introduce restrictions.” Mullen aligns the possibility of some unpleasant screen content at a library to what is true of newspapers. “Newspapers often contain disturbing information. Parents can choose to not show that to their kids, but it’s not our [public libraries] right to do that.”This column concedes that American popular culture depicts way too much “erotic behavior designed to cause sexual excitement”, but what is most troubling about that is that most of it is produced solely to expedite commerce. Like we did 60 years ago, we still use sexy women to sell automobiles and steak sandwiches. Considerably more troubling than a glance of porn in a public library is the amount of sexual sell aimed at teenagers. Check out the commercials for something called Axe Body Spray. I’m pretty sure it smells like Teen Spirit…Santa Monica Public Library computers utilize monitor screen covers that limit the angle from which an individual’s viewing can be observed by others. Still, there’s the possibility that a library patron will seek and find sexually explicit materials for reasons other than research or study, and that in walking past them another patron will look down and see it… and that will be unpleasant. But if we act against that which is unpleasant in the materials housed in our public libraries, we’re doomed. Home schooling may work for some, but its isolating sheath of narrowness cannot and must not be the template for public libraries or for banning books or for somehow monitoring TV and film.In 1964 Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Potter Stewart wrote in a decision that “hard-core pornography” was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it.” Rarely cited is the fact that Potter went on in that decision to defend the movie in question against further censorship. That our neighbor Hollywood made and marketed a horror movie with an explicit rape scene at its center in 1972 and then recently remade it—both times just to make money, not to prove a point–doesn’t stir much pride in the movie industry, but it turns out I don’t have to watch that movie. Filtering online material in public libraries isn’t “a challenge”, as suggested by the author of last week’s letter. It goes against the prime directives of public libraries. And if you’re out to change that… well, that will be a challenge.
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