It’s clear that pornography has no place in a public library, but despite common sense and the recognized standards of decent and proper behavior, there are those perverts who get off by watching porn in public on library computers. It doesn’t happen often, Santa Monica librarians say, but when it does, and a child happens to walk by and catch a glimpse, it sparks an emotional debate about the duty to protect children from obscene material verses the duty to protect the First Amendment and the right to view material that, while offensive to some, is not illegal.

The City of Los Angeles this week was forced to address the issue after some elected officials grew concerned when parents in December complained that a patron at the Chinatown library was viewing porn on a public computer, in plain sight of children nearby. The City Council debated and decided not to install pornography-filtering software on the computers. The city librarian said the software would infringe on First Amendment rights, preventing adults from viewing legal material available on the Internet. Librarians were concerned about a slippery slope, where parents could possibly ban “Harry Potter” books from libraries because of the presence of sorcery and witchcraft in them, or create the possibility of having librarians play morality police, determining what is obscene and what is not, a very hard thing to define when the material is not overtly sexual.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it is constitutional for schools and libraries that receive federal funding to have filters on computers to limit access to certain sites, most library systems do not out of fear of being sued and limiting access to legitimate sites, something that happens because the filtering systems are not as advanced as they need to be despite advancements in technology. Santa Monica’s policy is to not use filters and to have an “open access” environment, even when it comes to computers used solely by those under the age of 18.

Last year, the Daily Press received a few e-mails from readers about pornography being viewed at the Main Library and one other branch. At that time we spoke with the head librarian, Greg Mullen, about the library’s plans to protect the public from porn. Mullen said the library moved some computers so that it would be harder for those passing by to catch a glimpse. Better computer screen covers were also attached to provide privacy. Mullen said no computers at the end of library stacks or near the checkout counters have access to the Internet, limiting exposure to obscene material by those checking out materials. Those caught looking at illegal material, like child porn, are reported to the police.

While all those measures are good, we believe there needs to be more. In an open environment like a library where inappropriate, but legal material can be viewed by kids, the Daily Press feels the library has a responsibility to protect. Yes, parents are the fist line of defense and should educate and watch over their children, but in a day and age when many parents work and cannot be around their kids 24/7, society must play a role, too. The library system should look at installing the latest filtering technology on computers in the children’s section, test how it works and if it is successful, make them a permanent fixture and consider expanding them to all computers. Those who create the filters say they are very advanced these days and give people plenty of options when setting them up so that the vast majority of legitimate searches are allowed and not blocked. With that in mind, we think it’s worth a shot. For those who complain, they can ask a librarian to remove the filters with the simple click of a button so they can surf unencumbered.

We know Mullen doesn’t want his librarians to be morality police, and we agree that everyone’s definition of obscene is different (some think the Sport’s Illustrated swimsuit edition is inappropriate). But if a librarian does see someone looking at what is obviously pornography (let’s use a little common sense), we would hope they would step in and remind that person that watching porn in a public space is socially unacceptable and they should refrain from doing it. While the librarian couldn’t force them to stop if the material is legal, perhaps their reminder would shame that person into walking away.

With free speech comes some drawbacks (like KKK rallies and burning the Koran). We get it. But that doesn’t mean we have to sit by and not try and mitigate the impacts. Let’s look at Internet filters, at least on a trial basis and see where it leads. We think its worth a go considering what’s at stake.

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