library interests debate decency act
newsbytes news network
february 21, 1996  

washington, dc, u.s.a., 1996 feb 21 (nb) -- a group of librarians, academics, and computer professionals gathered in washington dc last week to voice their opposition to the communications decency act of the recently-enacted telecommunications legislation, reflecting a debate reverberating throughout libraries across the country.

us senator patrick leahy (d-vt) joined the protest to denounce the recently enacted communications decency act (cda), which opponents claim, went a long way to establishing government control of the internet.  the act calls for fines and jail sentences for anyone making available material deemed "indecent" via the internet.

computer professionals for social responsibility (cpsr) organized the event. "americans should be taking the high ground to protect the future of our home-grown internet, and to fight these censorship efforts that are springing up around the globe," declared leahy.  "we all want to protect our children from offensive or indecent online materials.  but we must be careful that the means we use to protect our children does not do more harm than good."

as reported by newsbytes, leahy has introduced legislation in the senate to repeal the act.

joining leahy was rivkah sass, manager of library development for the maryland state department of education, who expressed her concern over the legislation.  "the internet is like an enormous library and community center, where information and ideas are freely exchanged.  never before has our nation had such instantaneous and inexpensive access to so much knowledge," explained sass.

she continued:  "this 'decency' act is like a government bulldozer which will plow down almost the entire digital library, leaving only the children's section.  that is the wrong way to protect the families of our nation."

away from the protest meeting, judith krug, director of the office for intellectual freedom of the american library association (ala), told newsbytes that libraries and librarians are most concerned over the definition of "content provider" in penalties attached to the act.

"our concern is the difference in definitions between being only an access provider and being both an access provider and content provider as well," she said.  "libraries are putting their card catalogs and so forth on the internet, making them 'content providers' and opening up severe criminal penalties if you permit anyone under the age of 18 to access so-called 'indecent' materials.  there is no legal definition of 'decency.'  librarians get caught in the middle."

the ala is filing a lawsuit to add its efforts toward preventing enactment of the cda.  krug said the organization had hoped that the case would already be filed but that it has been delayed.  she said the suit might be filed in philadelphia to join with the aclu's action, as reported in newsbytes.

said dr. lawrence hunter, the chair of the washington dc chapter of cpsr and professor of computer science at george mason university.  "the values in my family are that children are encouraged to read books and use computers at the level the parents decide is appropriate.  not everything on the internet is fit for children, but there is a rapidly growing and very competitive industry in parental control software."

"informed and caring parents are far better than the government at guiding a child's quest for knowledge and keeping children from accessing those parts of the internet not meant for them," said sass, "just as parents help their children in making choices about what books to read or what videos to watch."

"why is it a threat to the first amendment to protect our children from pornography?" asked karen gounaud, founder and president of family friendly libraries (ffl), headquartered in springfield, virginia.  "we are worried about the increased use and availability of the internet in the libraries," gounaud told newsbytes.  "already there are no restrictions on what children and minors can access in books, so why is it any different with the internet?"

"it's a bit odd for conservatives to be asking for government controls but it's more than we can handle as individuals," gounaud said, equating the internet to any interstate activity requiring federal oversight.  "i know the bill (cda) isn't perfect but at least the government is saying, 'we care'."

"the first amendment is national in scope and, as the supreme court said in tinker, it does not stop at the schoolhouse door," said the ala's krug.  "not all children are the same.  is a 17-year-old on the eve of his 18th birthday the same as a five-year-old?  it is not the responsibility of librarians, or online content providers for that matter, to determine what is appropriate.  we are at the very beginning of how we will handle this new medium."

in his remarks leahy lent support to the use of technology in assisting parents monitoring their children's internet activities:  "we can already control the access our children have to indecent material with blocking technologies available for free from some online service providers and for a relatively low cost from software manufacturers.  should we not say that the parents ought to make this decision, not us in the congress?  banning indecent material from the internet is like using a meat cleaver to deal with the problems better addressed with a scalpel."

(dennis whitehead/19960220/press contact:  computer professionals for social responsibility, 415-322-3778, internet e-mail cpsr@cpsr.org, internet world wide web http://www.cpsr.org/ ; ala, 800-545-2433)

copyright 1996 washingtonpost newsweek interactive

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