S.F. Public Library Uses Plastic Privacy Shields for Viewing Porn

Friday, July 27, 2012

The San Francisco Public Library—caught in a raging debate that invokes arguments over civil liberties, academic freedom and common decency—has put plastic shields on 18 computers, allowing customers, should they choose, to view pornography without flashing their fellow patrons.

Most library computers have filters that restrict access to porn sites. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that public libraries can be compelled to employ the filters in order to be eligible to get federal funds for online education. Libraries are generally afforded broad discretion in determining how rigorous a system to use, sometimes opting for one as simple as a mouse click to turn it off.

Many librarians have an adverse reaction to censorship and prefer as minimal a system as possible, but that can lead to embarrassing and, at times, tense confrontations. Last December at a Laguna Beach library, eight homeless men were confronted after gathering around a computer to watch porn with children nearby. One was arrested on suspicion of lewd conduct.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been fighting in court since 2006 over how much latitude libraries should have in filtering computer access. A suit against a library in Washington State argued that its system “hampers adults in researching school assignments, locating businesses and organizations, and doing personal reading on lawful subjects.”  

Public displays of online lewd conduct, as most anyone within earshot of smartphone knows, are not confined to libraries. Morality in Media has a no-porn-on-planes campaign, and was particularly incensed last November when the chief executive at  Ryanair suggested that a new app for smartphones could facilitate watching porn while flying.

The debate extends to gyms, cafes, trains and even highways. A bill pending in New Jersey seeks to criminalize the playing of porn in cars, where it might be seen by passing motorists. At least three other states have already passed similar laws.  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:   

San Francisco Library Porn Shield Lets Patrons View Adult Content in Private (by Aaron Sankin, Huffington Post)

He’s Watching That, in Public? Pornography Takes Next Seat (by Matt Richtel, New York Times)

Homeless Men Caught Watching Porn at Laguna Beach Library, Patrons Say (KTLA news)

Pushback on CEO’s Porn on Planes Proposal (by Lisa Stark, ABC News)

Lawsuit Seeks Access to Information on Internet for Adult Library Patrons (ACLU)

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