Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Limited Access for Minors

How have people responded to this array of sexually-explicit sites on the Web, the relative ease with which one finds them, and the potential short and long-term harm from exposure to such material? Many parents and others have begun to call for limited access for minors at home, in schools, and most recently in the public libraries.

Appendix 11 contains information about the local dispute involving the KIDS (Keep the Internet Decent and Safe) group and the Gilroy Public Library. The Appendix begins with letters describing KIDS members' concerns and is followed by newspaper stories capturing some of their efforts to convince the library system to install filtering software.

To understand the concerns of those favoring limited Internet access for minors, refer to the minutes of the September 22 discussion (Appendix 8). Let us highlight just a few key themes. The participants in this discussion focused their concern on why minors (defined as those 17 and younger) are allowed to view pornography in the public library. They say it is against the law in the State of California everywhere except in publicly supported libraries. They wonder how the library can set its policies without the input of the community and they ask an important question: even if the libraries can't be legally held to protect minors through the use of filters on the computers, why wouldn't they do it anyway?

They believe they have been going through proper channels to gain a hearing for their position only to have the "door slammed in (their) faces" because of already existing library policies and the power of the American Library Association. They believe they have been unfairly characterized as being in favor of censorship, of being radicals, of being dangerous, and of being against the First Amendment. As a result, they feel the library's credibility has been damaged and trust has been lost. "We gave them our trust, but it appears it was ill-placed."

The key issue for these discussion participants was described this way: "We hired librarians to decide what materials are appropriate to come into the library and they allowed the Internet to come in....The issue is this: that minors should be protected from obscene materials found at the library at the expense of taxpayers." They are very clear that protection of their children (and, for some, other people's children) is their core value.

They have serious questions about the library's open access policies, especially in the age of the Internet: "...The library's existing policy that says that parents can't know what their children are exposed to is now being seen for what it is. And parents are saying enough is enough....This is a stupid policy and maybe we don't know how to change it but we want to make an issue out of it." "In the presence of this new technology, we have to do some different things and most of us agree that filters is the solution. The problem is created by technology so the solution happens to require some new technology."

The participants made it clear that what they really want is to filter illegal pornographic material: "We're only talking about what's illegal. We're only talking about pornography." "Do we agree that our children should not view pornographic material that is recognized as illegal for them to view?" They see this as a key question if there is to be any common ground. A second key question, mentioned early in the discussion, is whether everyone on the various sides agrees that pornography is "repellent for children? The question is whether the other side agrees? ...If we can't agree on that then we have a much more fundamental problem."

"We're here because the library is providing pornography to children against the parents' wishes and at the taxpayers' expense," the group concluded.

Other members of the public, not involved in the Gilroy dispute, reached a positive conclusion about filtering software using somewhat different logic: Most rational people, they said, would want to keep children away from sexually-explicit material on the Internet. They believe libraries already have materials selection policies and that filtering software would be just another part of that selection method. Most believe that the library is already "filtering" Playboy, Hustler, and other sexually explicit material, especially keeping them from children. So, they ask, what's the difference between that and filtering software?

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