CHICAGO—Pornographic images online have long provided moral and ethical debate. But here's a new twist: what happens when those images are being viewed in a public place...like the library?
As shocking as it sounds, library patrons are using public library computers to watch adult pornography.
The library claims it is a first amendment right, and that may be. But what about patrons who don't care to watch the explicit images? They say the x-rated access at the public library leaves them exposed.
"It's definitely not the library of my childhood memory," Don Bratschie said. Don and wife Amanda live in the South Loop doing volunteer work for the homeless. Their work often brought them to the third floor of Chicago's Harold Washington Public Library. That is, until Amanda just couldn't stand it anymore.
"I used to associate the word 'library' with safety and learning and fun," Amanda said, "But not anymore."
The couple claims that everytime they when to the library, pornographic images were everywhere. Don said he saw it at all times of the day in nearly 25 percent of the library's rooms.
WGN's concealed cameras show dozens of patrons looking at adult pornography in plain view. Even though each of the 135 computers have attached privacy screens, aisle after aisle the images were impossible to avoid.
If it's adult sexual content, there are no laws to stop people from viewing it. However, we asked the library's commissioner whether it should be allowed in a public library.
"The library is not the villain here," Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library Mary Dempsey said. "We are not promoting pornography, endorsing pornography. We are making a medium available to people and that is the internet."
Still, there are no warning signs on the walls, no filters in the system, and as for security guards, library officials said they are there to keep order and nothing more.
"No library is in favor of this," Dempsey said, "But we have no ability to control it."
As for kids having access to these computers, children 14 and under are supposed to use the second floor computer lab, but they are not prohibited from entering the third floor.
We wanted to see if the presence of our large video camera would deter people from viewing pornography. On a Wednesday afternoon around noon, we set up our camera right in the middle of the third floor. Still, with our obvious presence, the lewd video could still be spotted in different parts of the room.
That's what's troubling to Neliswa Masondo, and she says she doesn't visit the third floor anymore.
"This person was touching himself, then I realized I didn't even want to touch the computer," Masondo said. "It's unhygienic and gross."
While the library keeps its copies of Playboy behind the counter, more explicit online pornography is out in the open. As for program filters, Commissioner Dempsey maintained they don't work. She said they catch only words and not inappropriate images, and sometimes they accidentally block useful websites.
Yet other libraries around the Chicago area, such as Lake Forest, Schaumburg and Oak Lawn, do use filters.
In fact, Chicago Heights will even ban you from using their computers for a whole year if staff catches you watching porn on the internet.
"In the public environment I think there ought to be some way of filtering, blocking, screening out those images that people may not want to see," said Congressman Danny Davis.
Davis said he is not a fan of censorship and believes in a person's first amendment right to free speech, but also said there is something more that could be done.
Representatives of the Federal Communications Commission said if it involves federal funding, the agency is open to do something.
"If the chairman decided to put it on our agenda, then that would something I would be interested in taking a look at," said FCC Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate.
That's good news for Amanda Bratschie and her husband who said their complaints have fallen on deaf ears. Now they hope parents and others will at least be more aware of exactly how their taxpayer dollars are at work.
"I think these parents would be shocked to walk onto that floor of the library where the internet computers are and see what their children are able to see everyday," Don said.
The Chicago Public Library makes it very clear that if anyone is caught breaking the law, seen viewing child pornography, staff is instructed to call the police and hold that person until they get there.