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Photo by Sarah Houghton.

Photo by Sarah Houghton.


Despite Complaints, Seattle Public Libraries Say They Won't Censor Porn

Deborah Wang

The blogosphere is abuzz with the story of a Seattle mom and her family's encounter with pornography at a public library.

The woman says on a recent visit her to her neighborhood library, she saw a man watching hard–core porn on a computer. It was clearly visible to other people, including her kids. But even after she complained, she learned Seattle libraries have a policy of not interfering with what library patrons view on the Web, no matter how disturbing it may be to others.

KUOW's Deborah Wang has the story.


Julie Howe is a mother of two girls, ages 7 and 10. She recently took them on a visit to the Lake City branch of the Seattle Public Library. After dropping off her kids at the children's section, she walked over to check out some DVDs. There, sitting at a computer screen that was facing out into the public space, was a man watching very explicit hard–core pornography.

Howe: "So, I went to the librarian and I told her what was going on, and she said, yes, she knew that sometimes happened, but he had a right to access whatever he wanted and the library didn't put any filters on their computers."

Howe says the librarian apologized and was sympathetic, but she said there was nothing she could do.

But Howe persisted. She says she wanted the librarian to know exactly what other library patrons like herself were seeing. We've taken the liberty of bleeping out some of the description.

Howe: "And I said no, no, no, I don't think you understand, I mean this is a [bleep] and an [bleep] and they are pulling things out of her [bleep] and putting the [bleep] back in. I was very graphic because I wanted her to understand what was going on."

When it became clear the librarian was not going to act, Howe says she went back to the man, tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to move to another, less public computer. He refused.

So if you are now wondering what is and is not allowed on Seattle Public Library computers, here are the guidelines:

The library has what is called an open Internet policy. That means people can access any constitutionally–protected material that is available on the Web, including hard–core pornography.

Jennifer Patterson is the public service director for Seattle Public Library. She says the libraries do a number of things to try to shield children from potentially inappropriate materials. Internet access in the children's section is filtered, for example, and all computers have privacy screens that make it difficult to view images on the screen from an angle.

Patterson: "As well, we are carefully looking at how we configured our computers in our buildings, to try to minimize viewing through high–traffic areas."

But, Patterson says, that is harder to do in some of the city's smaller libraries.

The story has clearly touched a nerve. When Julie Howe was interviewed on KUOW's The Conversation, it prompted a slew of listener calls.

Listener 1: "If people are interested in porn want to come to the library, they can come and use the library like other people. And if they want to get into porn, they can get into porn at home."

Listener 2: "I'm glad to see a public agency like the library not putting any kind of stops on computers. I think people are more than able to self–regulate what they see on the Internet and I don't think there is anything on the Internet that will hurt anybody."

But Julie Howe says it can hurt people. When she was confronting the man at the library, she says one of her children came to find her and saw what was on his screen. Howe says she hustled her kids into her car where the child began to cry.

Howe: "I hugged her, and I talked with her, and I told her it was going to be OK. And that it wasn't OK that she saw that, and it wasn't OK that I saw that, and that I was really mad."

She says she understands the library's dilemma, and she doesn't dispute the policy of allowing unrestricted access to the Internet. But, she says, she also wants the library to protect kids in particular from being exposed to inappropriate material.

Although the library's policy is clear, the law may not be. The Seattle Attorney's Office tells KUOW that a 1973 city ordinance bans what's called the public display of erotic material. And the law defines public as being on a billboard, on a newsstand, in a window, or on a viewing screen. But, the Attorney's Office says, the law is rarely, if ever, enforced.

I'm Deborah Wang, KUOW News.

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