Communication Currents

Public Libraries: Porn Free?

October 1, 2009
Freedom of Expression

Mass media can and do affect how people think about free speech issues. People's attitudes about free speech issues matter. Lawmakers must take into account the public's opinion in the lawmaking process; some areas of First Amendment law require judges or juries to consider public opinion about what messages are appropriate in their community in coming to their decision. First Amendment advocates need to keep this in mind when crafting messages about current free speech issues. One on-going free speech issue concerns whether or not the government should require public schools and libraries to have filters on computers that access the Internet.

Every time a law is proposed to limit content--or access to content--it is based on concern about the effects the content may have. When the messages at issue may be seen by children, the desire to restrict becomes even stronger. Congress has tried several times to find a way to keep children from being harmed by Internet pornography. They were unsuccessful until the passage of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) in 2000. CIPA requires public libraries and K-12 public schools to place filters on computers with access to the Internet in exchange for receiving funding to offset the costs of computer repair and replacement. In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that CIPA is constitutional, because adults can still access information by asking a librarian temporarily to disable the filter.

Despite the Supreme Court's ruling, the debate continues about whether requiring filters is a form of government censorship, or if it is a necessary safeguard to protect children from Internet pornography. People who say filters are censorship argue that they block access to too much information that is not pornographic. For example, if a student were writing a report on breast cancer, an Internet search on a computer with a filter might be blocked, because of the word “breast.” Supporters of the filter requirement, however, see that risk as minimal when compared to the risk of letting children access pornography. Possible negative effects that are mentioned include distorting children's beliefs about sexuality and appropriate ways of expressing it, and encouraging premature sexual activity.

CIPA supporters also point out that public libraries and schools can opt out of the requirement to install filters by not accepting money for technology updates. But, it is libraries in areas with low income levels that cannot provide access to computers unless they have government support. And persons with low income are less likely to have Internet access at home, and rely more on public libraries for their computer needs.

The goals on both sides of this argument are noble: protecting children and maintaining free access to information. But when they come in conflict, it can be difficult to find a balance. Scholars have found that in forming public opinion about civil liberties issues like free speech, people start from a certain set of beliefs that reflect their past experiences and personalities. But, information about the specific situation at hand also influences their judgment.

In this study, participants were exposed to one of two news stories, which presented information about the filter controversy with different emphases. The first story emphasized the way filters can limit access to information (the anti-filter version), while the second story stressed the importance of filters as a way to protect children from harmful material (the pro-filter version). A third group of participants didn't read any news story. All three groups then completed a survey about their opinions of the requirement to filter public Internet access.

People who read the pro-filter version of the news story were more likely to support requiring Internet filters in public libraries than people who read the anti-filter version. The anti-filter group also supported the filter requirement less than the people who read no news story at all. There was no difference between the people who read the pro-filter version and those who read no news story. This suggests that real-world media coverage may have emphasized protecting children rather than presenting filters as an issue of access to information.

In the survey, people also indicated whether they were liberal or conservative, their age, whether or not they considered themselves to be religious, and the amount they use different forms of media. Statistical tests show that the emphasis of the news story read still influenced people's opinions about the Internet filter requirement, even after all of this other information was included in the analysis.

Some other factors that influenced support for the Internet filter requirement were conservatism (people who identified themselves as being conservative were more likely to endorse filters than those who said they were liberal); and whether or not they use pornography themselves (people who use pornography were more likely to support the Internet filter requirement than those who do not use pornography).

This study highlights the importance of media coverage as a source of situation-specific information about current controversies. It suggests that those wishing to influence public opinion about free speech issues would be well-served by emphasizing the costs of censorship.

About the author (s)

Jennifer L. Lambe

University of Delaware

Associate Professor

Myriah S. Lipke

Temple University

Academic Advisor