September 4, 2003
The U.S. Supreme Court held it is constitutional to require public libraries that receive federal funds and provide service to minors to install Internet filters on all their computers. Does Oklahoma also need legislation to compel its public libraries to install filters? While I agree that society must prevent easy access by minors to such objectionable material, I do not believe a mandated filtering law in our state is necessary. This does not mean I am “pro pornography” or that I oppose filtering in all cases. Especially at the local level, librarians are caught in the middle on this controversial issue. In addition to sharing the concern of our fellow citizens over access to inappropriate material we also have legitimate concerns about the roles of local library and school boards, rights of parents, and protection of constitutionally guaranteed rights of adult library users. The federal Children’s Internet Protection Act is now law and local school and library policies and practices are already in place. These measures plus informed parental involvement are more than sufficient to protect Oklahoma’s children.
The library's mission is to provide the fullest possible access by everyone in the community to all constitutionally protected forms of expression. While the Internet has expanded the range of choice, the principle of library service and open access remains the same: the final decision rests with the user. School and public library boards across Oklahoma have already developed acceptable use policies to govern the use of Internet resources. Many public libraries have also chosen to install filtering software but others have not. Such local decision-making is preferable to legislation that would override a local governing body's legal authority and is compatible with Oklahoma's beliefs that the less government regulation the better.
Today's children are growing up in a global information society. We must teach them to make good judgments about the information they encounter in print or online. Students of all ages must be able to distinguish between that which is useful and reliable and that which is not. Children must learn to handle and reject content that may be offensive to their values and to be accountable for safe and responsible online behavior. A reasonable alternative to compulsory statewide filtering is to allow parents and local school and public library boards to continue - without external mandate - to determine the appropriate use of Internet resources. The best way to ensure that the library remains a safe place for kids is for the library to be a place that families use together.
Our democratic form of government is founded on the Jeffersonian ideal that the best citizen is an informed and educated citizen. In our justifiable concern to protect our children from pornography let us make sure that we also protect the first amendment rights of our students, teachers, and all adult citizens to freedom of speech. Neither the Legislature nor commercial filtering companies should take the place of individual Oklahomans making their own responsible decisions.
Edward R. Johnson
Dean of Libraries
Oklahoma State University