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Sno-Isle ponders porn policy

Nobody knows how a Supreme Court decision about pornography and Internet access at libraries will affect Sno-Isle Regional Library System, which has branches in Oak Harbor and Coupeville.

Mary Kelly, the community relations manager for the library system, said board members will discuss the implications of the ruling at a meeting Friday, but she doubts there will be any ”quick decisions” about what to do.

Kelly said board members will first have to decide whether the library’s current system for filtering Internet access complies with a federal law, the Children’s Internet Protection Act, which the Supreme Court upheld in a ruling announced Monday. If it doesn’t comply, the board will have to decide whether to change the library internet policy or to forego the federal subsidies that come with conformity.

The library system stands to lose about $120,000 a year in federal assistance in the form of discounts to telephone and Internet service.

“On one hand, there’s a financial impact,” she said. “On the other hand, there’s a philosophical impact.”

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling upholds the law requiring public libraries to install pornography filters on all computers providing Internet access, as a condition of receiving federal grants and subsidies.

The law is meant to protect children from the immense amount of pornography on Internet Web sites. But the law concedes that adults have the right to view sexually explicit material, which is protected under the First Amendment.

In the summer of 2001, the Sno-Isle board changed the library system’s Internet policy after holding about five months of public meetings. Currently, children’s Internet access is filtered unless their parents approve un-filtered access.

Mary Campbell, the managing librarian at the Oak Harbor library, explained that the library subscribed to the Internet filter “Bess” from the Seattle-based company, N2H2, Inc.

Each patron has a library card with an identification number. Users log onto the Internet using their ID number. Anyone under 18 automatically gets filtered access unless his or her parents have signed a permission statement allowing full access. Adults can choose whether or not they want filtered or full access.

All the computers in the “children’s section” of the Oak Harbor library, Campbell said, have filters that can’t be disarmed in order to prevent any “inadvertent viewing of inappropriate material.”

While Kelly said the system works pretty well, but she’s not sure if it fully complies with the federal law, which requires filters on all computers. She questions, for example, whether that means the filter program has to be on the hard drives of every computer. Currently, the public computers outside the children’s area are filtered through a server and are not necessarily on the hard drive.

Campbell said the filter program seems pretty effective, but it’s far from perfect. For some reason, kids can’t connect to their e-mail if they are being filtered.

‘It’s hard to know what’s being filtered and what’s not being filtered,” she said.

She said some of the sites that the filter blocks seem “pretty arbitrary.” It blocked, for example, the Web site for the North Whidbey Middle School’s accelerating reading program. She’s not sure why, but she guesses it may be because the list included such controversial classics as “Catcher in the Rye” and “Huckleberry Finn.”

“It’s a problem with filters in general,” she said. Nevertheless, she added that “we think it’s a good solution because it gives parents an opportunity to choose what their children are viewing.”

Campbell said many parents of older teens have given them permission to access the Internet without filters. The library is a popular place for people of all ages to check their e-mail, as well as surf the Internet. The library doesn’t offer e-mail accounts, but it does hold classes on how to set up a free e-mail account.

According to Campbell, there are 30 public-use computers at the Oak Harbor library. Five of those are catalog-only computers and don’t have Internet access. Five others are in the children’s section and offer only filtered access.

Of the remaining 20 computers, all of them have Internet access. There’s also six computers, Campbell explained, with “floppy enabled upload / download capabilities.” These computers have Microsoft Word and Excel and users can save their work to a disk.

In addition, anyone with a Sno-Isle library card can access all sorts of interesting and informative Web sites through the library’s Web site, www.sno-isle.org, including an online catalog of books, a magazine database, investment information and an auto repair guide.

“Access to technology,” Kelly said, “has become a real piece of library services.”

But only time will tell how this collision of technology and the First Amendment will play out in Snohomish and Island counties.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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