Carroll library software blocks any glimpse of sex; Area's toughest policy on Internet access has unintended effects


Looking for the inside scoop on Super Bowl XXXIII? Don't bother going online at the Carroll County Public Library -- the smut detector will stop you dead in your tracks.

Carroll County has the most aggressive Internet-access policy in the metropolitan region.

It's one of only two public library systems in the state that use filtering software to block so-called objectionable sites -- including those that appear to be triple-X-rated -- on all the computer terminals in their branches.

The strict policy, and its unintended impact on Web-browsing football fans, illustrates the complexity of trying to regulate Internet access in libraries.

With no binding national standard, officials are trying to form policies that balance freedom of information with public decency.

Baltimore City and Anne Arundel and Howard counties are at the opposite end of the spectrum from Carroll, with no filtering software on any library computers.

When the Allegany County Public Library board voted to install filters on computers in the children's section, li brary Director Jane Rustin thought her view of the Constitution was compromised and resigned.

"I think a library needs to be very strong in its intellectual-freedom stance, and only if something is clearly legal should they do that. When it's ambiguous, they should fall on the side of protection of the First Amendment," said Rustin, adding that she was not criticizing Carroll County's policy.

Libraries' unique position in the community makes them fertile ground for this debate, said Steven Herb, chairman of the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the 57,000-member American Library Association, which opposes filtering software.

"On the side of access of information to all, the library is a real success story," he said. "It's where immigrants learned to speak the language of their new country, and it helped people find jobs. [I]t's a microcosm of the American dream.

"On the other side, it's a public place with public restrooms and it's one of the first places children might operate independently. It's designed to give access to all, and that requires responsibility and caution."

In Carroll, restricting access wasn't a difficult decision.

"It's the right thing for Carroll County," said Scott Reinhart, associate director of the library. "We're politically conservative, religiously conservative -- in many areas we're pretty conservative.

"The board really didn't want pornography on the library screens. I could say it a lot more flowery, but basically that's the bottom line for us."

Carroll County has used filtering software since it began offering Web access in 1994. Reinhart said the issue has not come up for public debate.

The courts seem to support greater access. Last week, an Alameda County judge in California dismissed a lawsuit filed by the mother of a 12-year-old boy. She tried to force a library to install filtering software.

And in late November, a U.S. District Court judge in Virginia sided with the American Civil Liberties Union and struck down the Loudoun County library's filtering policy, saying it "offends the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment."

Many library systems, including those in Baltimore and Harford counties, have taken a middle-of-the-road position by putting filters on some computers, mainly in the children's section, and leaving others unrestricted.

After the Loudoun County decision, Carroll officials consulted County Attorney Laurell Taylor, who said their policy did not need to be altered.

Reinhart said, "The main issue as we see it isn't the fact that they [Loudoun County] were using filters, but they made it rather difficult for patrons to get around the filters, to turn them off.

"We routinely turn off the filter for sessions if it's requested."

In practice, it's not an anything-goes situation.

Lois Leasure, head librarian at the Westminster branch, said staff members do not routinely turn off the filtering device, "but if we can tell it's legitimate information for people to know" then the filter may be overridden.

Michelle Spear, who frequently brings her 7- and 12-year-old daughters to the Westminster library, was unaware of the filtering policy. She was pleased to hear about it, though; she'd been uneasy about letting Nicole, the 7-year-old, go online.

"I would let her do it if that was the case. The Internet can be educational, but sometimes it's too educational," she said.

Westminster resident James Anderson, who goes to the library about twice a week to do genealogy research, objects to the filters.

"I'm not a great proponent of censorship. I'd like to see a kids' room and an adult room," said Anderson, 51. "I personally believe an adult human being should be able to access anything they want."

Some software is not advanced enough to determine a site's content and blocks by key words and groups of letters. For instance, a software program previously used by Baltimore County would not allow access to the Essex branch's home page because the letters s-e-x are in the community's name.

Carroll's former system wouldn't allow searches about Cockeysville or breast cancer. Searches for "safe sex" remain blocked. A patron may search for "Super Bowl" and find sites that include Super Bowl XXXIII, but a refined search isn't allowed.

"It's just not perfect, but I think if someone was going after Super Bowl stuff and they didn't get it, they would scratch their head and go to the librarian and say, 'Hey, what gives?' " said Jill Kartalia, president of Carroll's library board. "I think we're all comfortable with what's in place now."

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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