Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Our Opinion: Porn on library computers? It’s constitutional

There are practical and constitutional problems with filters: They are ineffective and they filter the First Amendment.

Adhering to the First Amendment protections of the Constitution can often be a challenge – especially when it comes to protecting free speech that is unpopular or distasteful.

But picking and choosing which free speech to protect is like cutting a deal with the devil: Once the line is crossed, it becomes impossible to maintain purity.

When someone determines that some segment of free speech is unworthy of protection, the First Amendment has been despoiled.

And that is the problem faced by members of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, who recently became policymakers for the Tucson-Pima Public Library system. Before July 1, libraries were overseen by the City Council.

Almost immediately upon taking over the libraries, supervisors were faced with the conundrum of what to do about limiting Internet access on library computers.

The matter came to a head when a local television station broadcast a story that showed men sitting at library computers and looking at pictures of naked women.

What outraged the citizenry was the possibility that children wandering behind the men could see what were clearly offensive images.

There were calls to install electronic filters on library computers so access to certain Web sites that were deemed offensive by someone could be blocked – a position advocated by Supervisor Ray Carroll.

We’re with Carroll on the distastefulness of these Web sites, but not on the issue of how to block them in public libraries. There are practical and constitutional problems with filters.

Filters can easily be bypassed by people with some computer expertise. And like filters designed to keep spam out of e-mail boxes, Internet filters can be ineffective. Some sex-related Web sites can slip through, while legitimate sites – such as medical information on breast cancer – can be wrongly blocked.

More troubling are the constitutional concerns. Who decides what will be blocked? Just sex-related sites? Other people are offended by different topics.

What about sites where guns are sold? Tobacco company Web sites? Some may be offended by the Republican Party site and others by Democrat-related sites. Should everything that could be offensive to anyone be blocked?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that adults have a First Amendment right to access material that is not illegal. That draws the line against child pornography. But if it’s legal, adults can choose whether to filter it out, the high court decided.

That’s the correct approach. The supervisors did the right thing last week when they decided against filters and in favor of privacy screens around computers so passers-by won’t see what’s on the screens – whether it’s naked women or personal financial data.

This is not the end of the matter. A committee has been appointed to come up with a permanent solution.

Nothing will please everyone. But if Pima County decides who can access what on public computers, it will start down a slippery constitutional slope leading to serious questions about individual rights.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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