Librarians have come a long way, baby.
In days of yore, the town librarian would be a woman, likely a spinster, who wore bifocals and her hair in a bun.
She was the picture of primness, rectitude and propriety. She would seriously wonder whether National Geographic belonged on the shelves, given that it so often featured pictures of topless African women.
These days, librarians want to let it all hang out. It’s free speech all the way — which explains why the American Library Association is not happy with Monday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the subject of Internet pornography.
Free speech, of course, is precious. But as courts have noted over and over again, it cannot be completely unfettered. And one fetter that almost everyone agrees is necessary is the one that keeps pornography out of children’s hands.
Any kid who knows how to click a mouse, however, can view pornography on an unfiltered computer with Internet access. Congress, therefore, took the quite appropriate step of requiring libraries that receive federal funding to install filters that would prevent children from logging on to objectionable Web sites.
Librarians and other free-speech absolutists objected that such filters could hinder legitimate research on such topics as, say, breast cancer. They also argued that adults have a right to view pornography, even if it’s on taxpayer-funded computers.
The high court’s ruling on Monday found a reasonable middle ground.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act is constitutional, the court said in a split decision. Adult library patrons who want full Internet access for research purposes need only ask a librarian to turn off the filter.
Some complained that patrons might suffer embarrassment should they have to make such a request. But Chief Justice William Rehnquist noted correctly that the Constitution “does not guarantee the right to acquire information at a public library without any risk of embarrassment.”
As for the argument that Internet filters can block legitimate Web sites, that’s something for the computer industry — perhaps at the strong urging of America’s librarians — to address. Programmers are smart people; can’t they figure something out?
One further point: There’s no law that says a public library must take federal money. If they don’t want to operate on Uncle Sam’s terms, they should be willing to operate without Uncle Sam’s dough. In other words, every library in the country is still free to offer unfiltered computer access to whomever it wishes, as long as it does so on its own dime.
The Supreme Court here has done a nice job of upholding a law that protects children while at the same time doing no damage whatsoever to our cherished First Amendment.