The Town Council passed on a proposed change Monday that would have let the Chapel Hill Public Library use internet filtering software.
The library is one of three in the state that now provide free, open Internet access, officials said. The current policy lets staff intervene if patrons are viewing pornographic material and suspend privileges or access for those who don't comply. Patrons who break the law can be prosecuted.
They don’t track policy violations, library director Susan Brown said, but staff probably deals with a couple each month. They don’t condone censorship, she said, but decided to look at online content filters after realizing the policy blocked access to federal grants for technology.
The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires agencies receiving grants to use Internet filters to block obscene images, child pornography and images considered harmful for minors. Filtering software uses a series of pre-set rules to block Internet content deemed undesirable.
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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. She estimated adding an image filtering software could cost the library up to $10,000 a year.
The library received feedback from residents concerned about censorship and about limiting children’s exposure to pornographic images, she said.
Resident Kim Stahl cited an American Library Association report that says image-blocking internet filters mischaracterize information up to half the time. Keyword and other types of filters block the wrong things up to 20 percent of the time, she said.
She and former Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the proposed change would infringe on First Amendment rights. That runs counter to the view of Chapel Hill’s library as a place where open access to information is celebrated, Kleinschmidt said.
“Before the CIPA was passed, Congress tried to ban this activity twice, and it was found unconstitutional,” he said. “It is only consitituional today because government extorts compliance from cities and libraries and schools by preventing them from applying for these various funds.”
While she has concerns about what her young children might be exposed to at the library, Council member Jessica Anderson said she’s also mindful of what’s happening nationally, including “the assault on information and ‘alternative facts’.”
“I perhaps am a little more vigilant at this point because of some of the changes that have taken place, but I do think it’s a complicated issue and I appreciate the (library board of trustees) looking at it and bringing it to us, because I know it is not cut and dried. It is not just a matter of free speech vs. censorship,” she said.
The citizens who spoke made “excellent points,” Council member George Cianciolo said.
“Potentially selling rights for $100,000 is not justified in this situation,” he said. “If we need technology, and I’m sure we do, then I think we need to find other ways to fund it, and I wouldn’t want to fund it at the expense of curtailing free speech and acccess to information for the other citizens.”
Council member Donna Bell urged Brown to ask for help if the library needs more money to provide universal internet access and information.