Originally created 05/07/00

Librarians file grievances over porn



MINNEAPOLIS -- Mary Doty stared in disbelief at the contents of the inch-thick packet of pornographic printouts delivered to her on behalf of seven Minneapolis librarians.

"These weren't just pictures of pretty, nude ladies," said Doty, a Minneapolis Public Library board member. "It's really gross, abnormal-looking stuff, child pornography. ... Unbelievable!"

These printed images, found in library copy machines, on tables and on computer screens, were delivered Wednesday to Mary Lawson, director of the Minneapolis Public Library system, and board members.

With them was a four-page letter accusing the Minneapolis Central Library of being a "hostile, offensive, palpably unlawful working environment."

Those complaints of discrimination were filed Wednesday with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of the seven librarians. At least two other librarians are expected to file similar complaints by week's end, said Robert S. Halagan, an attorney representing the librarians.

Halagan said Wednesday night that he attended a library board meeting at which a motion was passed to post signup sheets for Internet use. In addition, the board is considering the use of a central printer, has ordered some recessed work stations to help ensure privacy and has discussed scheduling public forums, Halagan said.

The national debate over library access to the Internet and pornography is a complicated one involving interpretations of First Amendment rights and censorship, but technical problems prevent libraries from controlling computer use.

For months, staff members and patrons have complained to the board and to Lawson about hard-core pornographic Web sites left open on vacated terminals, graphic printouts left on tables and youngsters mesmerized by Internet porn. Patrons complained that anyone walking through the library could see pornography on computers.

"We could see that nothing was really happening in terms of concrete steps being taken," said librarian Mary Kay Harris, one of the complainants. "Nothing had changed in three-plus years. It seemed that the situation at the library was escalating."

At issue, Lawson has said, are First Amendment rights.

But Dick Kaspari, attorney for the Librarians Union of Minneapolis, said a public institution has no First Amendment obligations to offer explicit material.

And although Lawson contended that "major violent acts" and problematic behavior seemed to have diminished at the library in recent years, librarians who met with union representatives said they would be reluctant to approach patrons who blatantly display pornography on computer terminals.

Lawson said she knows that staff librarians are "under stress."

Said Doty, a Minneapolis library board member for 17 years: "There's no question there is a problem in libraries all over the United States about this. When people say we're talking about pictures of nude ladies, I get annoyed. It's much more severe. But possible solutions are complicated."

Use of library computers is free. The polarized privacy screens on some don't prevent anyone directly in front of the computer from catching a full view.

Among possible remedies: Software that limits computer time might provide some relief. In Roseville, Minn., patrons must sign up to use a computer. Some people who intend to view porn sites sign phony names, but others are deterred. Bar codes could limits computer use to 30 minutes, and only to card-carrying residents.

In the state Legislature, Sen. Dave Knutson, R-Burnsville, said he intends to introduce legislation that would require all Internet-capable computers in public schools and libraries to have pornography-blocking devices.