Children and open access to information: Is it too much?
Written by Kerry Roman
As a youth and teen librarian I have had many encounters with patrons regarding internet access and filtering internet access for children. The public library in which I work has three distinct areas for public computer access. In the youth room, access is highly filtered, and in the teen area, access is still filtered but less than in the youth room. The adult computer center has some filters in place after patron complaints regarding visible pornography. The adult room is only for patrons age 18 and over. Essentially, there is no public place in the library which allows complete open access to information.
While my library has filters in place as a result of patron expectation, other public and school libraries restrict open access because of an act of Congress. The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000 was enacted to “address concerns about children’s access to obscene or harmful content over the Internet” (Children’s Internet Protection Act). CIPA requires that schools and libraries receiving discounts through the e-rate program to help defray the cost of internet access must have filters, or risk losing funding for their internet access. The requirements of CIPA are few. Schools and libraries subject to CIPA must provide certification that their institution has adopted an internet safety policy that includes use of filtering or blocking software from access to child pornography on adult computers, and access to harmful, sexually explicit images for minors. Institutions must also adopt a written internet safety policy and must hold at least one public hearing or forum addressing the policy. Schools subject to CIPA must also monitor the online activities of students and educate minors on appropriate online behavior. CIPA does not block social media sites, online text, or controversial viewpoints (Caldwell-Stone, 2013).
Problems arise when schools and libraries misinterpret the guidelines set out by CIPA. Many institutions have decided that CIPA allows them to determine which online information should be censored, despite the American Library Association’s commitment to intellectual freedom and open access rights. This may not always be a conscious act by libraries. Misunderstanding may account for some of this content blocking. Some institutions believe they will lose all federal funding if they are found to be in non-compliance with the CIPA mandates. Others believe that CIPA gives permission for an institution to place restrictive filters on all of their devices, whether designed for children or adults, regardless of an individual’s First Amendment rights. To further muddy the issue, in 2003 the Supreme Court upheld a decision against the American Library Association and a coalition of librarians and library users. The Supreme Court found the use of filters for adult internet access unconstitutional (Caldwell-Stone, 2013). It is no wonder that internet filtering for minors is such a tricky subject.
As a librarian who serves youth and teens, I can understand why institutions want filters in place. As a parent, I can certainly understand why the public would also want filters for public access computers. The library in which I work does not receive federal funding for internet access or internal connections. Therefore, we do not have to follow the CIPA guidelines. I actually think our filtering policy is more restrictive than what is imposed by CIPA. I can also say we very rarely receive a complaint from the public regarding the amount of filtering present on our youth and teen computers.
Should children be subjected to stricter internet filtering than adults? Does this impact their First Amendment rights?
Caldwell-Stone, D. (2013). Filtering and the First Amendment. American Libraries, 45(3/4), 58-61.
Children’s Internet Protection Act. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2013, from Federal Communications Commission: http://www.fcc.gov/guides/childrens-internet-protection-act