The Town Council will consider Monday whether the Chapel Hill Public Library should filter patrons’ Internet access – a move that would let the library use federal money to buy technology.
Filtering software uses a series of pre-set rules to block Internet content deemed undesirable. The town previously considered using filters in 2002 and 2004.
Chapel Hill’s library is one of only three in the state that now provide free, open Internet access, according to a letter from Brian Sturm, chairman of the Library Board of Trustees. The policy lets staff intervene if patrons are viewing pornographic material and suspend privileges or access for those who don’t comply. Patrons who violate local, state and federal laws also can be prosecuted.
Library director Susan Brown is asking the council to amend that policy to meet the requirements of the federal Children’s Internet Protection Act. The act requires agencies that seek federal money use Internet filters to block obscene images, child pornography and images considered harmful for minors.
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Chapel Hill’s library has received $235,000 in federal Library Services and Technology Act money over the past three years, Brown said, but could not spend it on Internet-related technology. The proposed change would support the library’s education, community and digital inclusion goals, she said.
Some citizens have endorsed doing what’s necessary to restrict access to pornographic materials. Others are concerned the change could violate user privacy and limit access to ideas and information, without doing much to block pornography.
Kim Stahl said she is concerned the library is putting money ahead of free public inquiry and suggested the council, at the least, select software that respects intellectual freedom, has a defined cost and makes it easy to unblock material.
“If someone was proposing we not stock ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Catcher in the Rye’ in our library, the town would be up in arms,” Stahl said. “But Internet filtering is the modern version of censorship and threat to our children’s freedom of thought. Our library should be at the forefront of that issue.”
The American Library Association also does not recommend Internet filters, saying they can block “constitutionally protected speech, including content on social networking and gaming sites, compromises First Amendment freedoms and the core values of librarianship.”
The association notes the software can be unreliable, blocking too much or too little content, and letting experienced computer users circumvent the filters.
The Orange County Public Library hasn’t had any problems with its software, in place for several years, director Lucinda Munger said. The filters meet the minimum requirements, which can let offensive materials slip through, she said.
Chapel Hill’s library also would use the minimum filtering required by federal rules and block as little content as possible, staff said. They could set, monitor and adjust the filter as needed and also make unblocking material quick and easy for users, they said.
The Chapel Hill Town Council meets at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9, in the Town Hall Council Chamber, 405 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The council’s agenda includes a report on the Lower Booker Creek Subwatershed Study and a midyear financial update.