By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — It’s a sticky situation.
What do you do when a patron at the Colfax Public Library is viewing pornography on one of the public computers but accidentally does not have the ear phones plugged in all the way and there are children present in the library?
Lisa Bragg-Hurlburt, director of the Colfax Public Library, said at the library board’s November 21 meeting, as far as she knows, the viewing of pornography by a library patron was an isolated incident.
[emember_protected] Viewing adult pornography by an adult is not a crime, noted John Thompson, director of the Indianhead Federated Library System (IFLIS), who also attended the meeting.
Viewing and possessing child pornography is a crime, but adult pornography is not, Thompson said.
Bragg-Hurlburt and Thompson said that while they, personally, do not necessarily feel comfortable with a patron viewing pornography at a public library where children could be present, pornography is a protected freedom of expression preserved by the United States Constitution.
Library board member Krista Ottinger asked if there was anything in the library’s policies or usage guidelines that prohibited pornography in the library.
The Internet usage sign makes reference to not viewing nudity, Bragg-Hurlburt said.
“Some things are not acceptable, and children should not be exposed to pornography,” said Gary Stene, the Dunn County Board’s representative on the Colfax Public Library Board.
Stene advocated consequences for people who violated the usage guidelines and/or the policy.
Internet filters could be installed at the Colfax Public Library, but the filters are not perfect and they may or may not catch everything, Thompson said.
Nancy Baumgartner, library board member, said that the computers at her place of employment have filters, and the filters make it just about impossible to go anywhere on the Internet.
Stene, who is employed as an aide in the Colfax school district, said the filters used at school also make it nearly impossible to do any Internet searches.
Even the most innocent search term can be misconstrued by the filters, Stene said.
The public library would not want to be in a position of someone not being able to research how to do a breast self-exam for detecting breast cancer, Ottinger noted.
The tricky part for library staff would be determining what is pornography, Thompson said, since there is no formal definition for pornography.
One person’s interpretation is different from another person’s interpretation, he said.
One person may think the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition is pornography, and another person views the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition as photographic art, Thompson said.
The library does not want to be in the position of defining pornography but, instead, should consider taking steps to minimize opportunities for children to be impacted, Stene said.
One solution, Thompson said, would be if the library had more room so the children’s area could be in a separate part of the library away from the computer area.
But for right now, since the Colfax library is “tight quarters,” staff could be proactively wandering around interacting with people, he said.
In loco parentis
Public libraries are different from schools. When children go to school, parents turn over the care of their children to the school, but the concept does not apply to public libraries, Thompson said.
The concept under which schools operate is known as “in loco parentis” — which means, “in place of a parent.”
Since the library is different than a school, the library should have an “unattended child” policy, Thompson said.
The question becomes, “what is reasonable control?” when certain activities are protected free speech, he said.
Several library board members noted the Colfax Public Library does not keep pornographic material on the shelves.
The library could keep pornographic material on the shelves if that was part of the library’s collection development plan, Thompson said.
But the Colfax library is not consciously stocking pornography, because for Colfax, it is a collection development issue, he said.
What if someone came to the library and said he or she wanted the library to purchase Playboy magazine and have it be part of the library’s periodicals? Stene asked.
“I do not feel I have to purchase every single item because someone suggests it,” Bragg-Hurlburt said.
When people make requests for materials, Bragg-Hurlburt said she considers whether other people have requested the same or similar material and whether it fits in with development of the collection at Colfax.
The library board should remember that the issue causing the discussion was one incident, Baumgartner noted.
The library board has to be mindful of not being reactionary to a single incident, Ottinger said.
There is no precedent for using filters at libraries because only one library uses any type of Internet filter, and that’s the Eau Claire Public Library in the children’s section, she said.
If Colfax had a larger library space, there could be more separation between children and adults, Bragg-Hurlburt said, adding she hopes parents with children feel the library is a safe place where they feel welcome.
All together, “99 percent is positive” so the library board and staff should be careful not to be caught up in considering potential problems, she said.
The standard is whether a policy is reasonable, Thompson said.
If the rules spelled out for the violation of a policy are reasonable, then the policies are upheld if the issue goes to court, he said.
If someone violates the policy and views pornography, for a first-time offense, it would be reasonable to ask that person to leave the library. If pornography was viewed a second time, it would be reasonable for that person to lose his or her Internet privileges for a certain amount of time, Thompson said.
Bragg-Hurlburt said she was not at the library when the pornography incident occurred.
A mother overheard the audio of the pornography, and as she left the library, told the staff member on duty about it.
Unfortunately, the staff member has hearing problems and did not hear what it was the mother said, Bragg-Hurlburt explained.
Days later, when the father made a post on Facebook about the pornography incident, that’s when Bragg-Hurlburt said she became aware of the situation.
Bragg-Hurlburt said she contacted the family and talked to them about it.
The person watching the pornography stayed out of the library for about a month but has now started coming back to the library, she said.
The library board should not make a rash decision, said Mark Halpin, the village’s representative on the library board.
“We do not want to make policy on an isolated incident,” Ottinger said.
The library board should move cautiously, Stene said.
If a company has a policy of not allowing harassment of employees but then overlooks incidents of harassment, then the company, in reality, has a policy of allowing harassment to occur, he said.
On the issue of Internet filters, Stene made a motion, seconded by Halpin, to not install filters.
The Colfax Public Library Board unanimously approved the motion.
Library board member Olivia Landon said she had contacted the village’s attorney about the issue.
Exposing a child to harmful material (pornography) is a felony in the state of Wisconsin, she said.
Even someone who inadvertently exposed a child to pornography, with no intent to do so, could be charged with the felony of exposing a child to harmful material, Landon said.
The Colfax Messenger has covered court cases in which the defendant has been charged with “exposing a child to harmful material.”
Dunn County Circuit Court has its share of defendants charged with exposing a child to harmful material, and in many of those cases, the charges are in conjunction with other charges such as child sexual assault and child enticement. The defendants have been pedophiles who target children for sexual gratification and not patrons using a public library.
Library board members agreed the board should discuss policy changes, usage changes and penalties at the next meeting.
Thompson suggested making the Internet usage policy more prominent.
The library could have the background screens on the computer posted with the Internet usage policy so that when patrons use the computers, the usage policy is right in front of them on the screen, he said.
Bragg-Hurlburt said she would research more information about setting the computer screens with the usage policy and would research wording for Internet usage policies to present at the next meeting.
The Colfax Public Library Board meets next on December 19. [/emember_protected]