Libraries and Cyberspace: Balancing First Amendment Rights and Child Safety

Public libraries all across the U.S. have at their core a mission to protect their patrons’ First Amendment rights, specifically the right to free speech and expression of thought. For hundreds of years, books were the primary medium of conveying human history, scientific information and intellectual ideas between individuals and institutions. As information technology progressed, vinyl records, audio tape and microfiche were added amidst the stacks of books, magazines and journals housed in every library across the country. Then came the computer revolution and high-speed data storage and retrieval.

Over the past hundred or so years this evolution of information storage and transfer, was fairly easy for librarians to manage, being for the most part localized. For a youngster wandering the aisles of a library in the 1960s, there of course was potential exposure to adult content, yet it was not always evident and relatively difficult to access and comprehend without the oversight (and guidance) of a parent or librarian. Quite simply, kids were generally shielded due to the “clunkiness” of the available media — mainly printed books and large, complex mechanical storage and playback devices.

But with the advent of the World Wide Web in the early 1980s, an entire world of thoughts and ideas was now just a keystroke away for anyone with access to a computer. As part of their mission — to provide access to information and foster the free transfer of intellectual thought and human expression — libraries began to install computers with access to a nascent Internet. Many low-income households could not afford a computer and libraries helped to fill some of that gap by providing essentially free access to an incredibly large and diverse pool of human knowledge.

Unfortunately, as with many leaps in technology, the ubiquity of internet access in public libraries means that younger children and teenagers can more easily access adult content as well as communicate with potentially dangerous individuals in a setting away from the watchful eyes of their parents and guardians. And yet, the mission of our public libraries remains true to the First Amendment. So how, in a world of online content rife with adult-oriented websites and potential physical threats, can libraries help protect minors while at the same time upholding everyone’s First Amendment rights?

Does Protecting Kids Equate to Censorship?

Protecting kids does not necessarily equate to censorship, especially since libraries have a dual responsibility to all patrons, adults as well as youngsters. U.S. public libraries have for more than 200 years played an extremely important role in protecting and promoting their patrons’ First Amendment rights; they do so by providing access to a wide range of information and viewpoints. Libraries also have a responsibility to ensure that the materials provided to their patrons — including electronic access to information — are free from censorship of any kind. Quite simply, public library patrons have the right to read, view, and access any material of their choosing without interference or alteration.

The concern voiced by many parents is that the Constitutional freedom to access anything on a public library’s computers can result in underage patrons being exposed to explicit or adult-oriented online content. This seeming dichotomy presented libraries with a serious dilemma, the solution to which appears to be a balance between maintaining the rights of patrons to unfettered information access and the desire to maintain a safe and welcoming environment for all patrons, including minors. This is why many libraries have had to set rules and policies that honor the First Amendment, yet ensure the overall safety and comfort of everyone who walks through their doors.

As publicly funded institutions, libraries play an important role in protecting and maintaining free and open access to information. As an arm of the state, however, library policy is often crafted following the Tenth Amendment’s recognition of the state’s power to protect the health, safety, welfare and morals of its citizenry. It is within this framework that library policy pertaining to the protection of minors against threats on the internet most likely finds its basis. In this way, libraries have managed to navigate a path — albeit an imperfect one — toward serving their respective communities by protecting kids while avoiding outright censorship.

Efforts to Protect Kids from Online Threats

Public libraries nationwide have in place a number of measures designed to help protect children from cyber threats, such as adult content, cyberbullying, online predators and other dangers lurking on the Internet. Depending on the particular library, its location and the interests of the local community, these measures may include:

  1. Internet safety policies — Public libraries will often have clearly stated policies created to ensure that children are protected while accessing the Internet within the confines of the library building. Adopted policies may include library rules regarding appropriate online behavior, as well as filters designed to block inappropriate content
  2. Supervised internet use — Many public libraries throughout the country provide supervised internet areas for youngsters. These areas allow for a member of the library staff to not only ensure the children’s safety on the internet but also as a resource for kids’ who have questions and need related assistance
  3. Educational programs — Public libraries will often add educational programs, as well as informational resources, for children and their families regarding internet safety. Such programs may cover how to limit access to adult content websites and how to protect children from online predators
  4. Parental involvement — Some libraries may have ongoing efforts to encourage parents and guardians to become more involved in their kids’ online activities, and as such may provide tips on how to monitor their youngster’s use of the internet and how to address cyberbullying
  5. Use of filters and other technologies — Public libraries may typically use filters or other technologies to block websites containing inappropriate or adult content. By employing such filters, libraries can help to protect younger patrons from online threats.

Sadly, even with library policies in place, content blocking software installed, and active monitoring of kids as they are using library computers to access the Internet, there is still a chance that a youngster will cross paths with an internet predator. But if a child has been told about and understands the potential danger posed by some strangers online, he or she may be better equipped to report such an event to their parents or a trusted adult.

Government Efforts to Protect Kids Online

One of the primary legislative efforts to protect children when accessing online content in public libraries is the Children’s Internet Protection Act or CIPA. Along with the Neighborhood Internet Protection Act (NIPA), these two pieces of legislation have been in effect since 2001. Together, they tie the use of Internet safety measures — such as content blocking filters — to the funding made available through the Library Services and Technology Act, Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act; they also can affect the benefits of the Universal Service discount program known as the E-rate (Public Law 106-554).

Both the CIPA and the Neighborhood Internet Protection Act cover different areas concerning the protection of minors from certain materials online. When it comes to the CIPA, the law requires libraries that receive the aforementioned government funding to use filters that block certain “visual depictions,” as well as requiring libraries to maintain an Internet safety policy. NIPA covers a broader range of online content as well as certain “prohibited activities.” The funding restrictions for NIPA include only that of the Universal Service discount program, as well as requiring that libraries maintain an Internet safety policy — more aptly referred to as an “acceptable use” policy.

Is There a Downside to Libraries Using Content-blocking Filters?

There is a downside to libraries using content-blocking filters but since the Children’s Internet Protection Act requires federally-funded libraries to use such means, content filters have become a necessary evil. As an imperfect solution to protecting children from online adult content and Internet predators, CIPA was challenged in a case brought before the U.S. Supreme Court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) not long after it was passed into law. That challenge failed and CIPA continues to regulate public libraries’ approach to Internet content filtering more than 20 years later.

Despite the outcome, the case illustrated the heavy-handedness of content filtering, which can limit access not only to websites deemed by many parents as too explicit or dangerous for their minor children, but can also block access to sites that provide legitimate (albeit adult-oriented) content that some families may feel is completely fine for some of their children to view.

The ACLU’s lawyers argued that website blocking filters are typically erratic and often ineffective.

The blocking programs, according to the lawsuit, routinely and inexplicably blocked sites that clearly did not fall under the categories proscribed by the CIPA. As with so many facets of real life, there is rarely a perfect solution to such a complicated issue as protecting children from threats found on the Internet.

Helping Parents Protect Their Kids

It would appear that, again, the task falls primarily at the feet of mothers and fathers — with the help and support of the local community and other concerned adults — to safely guide their children through a dizzying maze of Internet content and potential danger. A local public library may have some kind of ongoing program to help educate parents on how to shield their kids from adult content found online, as well as what to do to reduce the chance of their child becoming the victim of an Internet predator, and the steps to follow if, unfortunately, it does happen. The following is a partial list of suggestions to help parents teach their children about and protect them from online threats, especially child predators lurking on the Internet:

  1. Educate yourself and your kids — Online safety is important for everyone in a household, especially for youngsters accessing the internet on their won. Have a thoughtful talk with your children about the importance of being safe while using the Internet; teach them how to recognize and report inappropriate behavior when they experience it
  2. Establish limits — Setting boundaries for a child is important in every aspect of their early development, but it is especially important when it comes to their own behavior online. Be particularly clear regarding what websites they can visit, as well as which personal information they can share online. Consider creating a set of written rules for them to follow as well
  3. Monitor their online activity — When possible, especially early on, check in on your child to see, firsthand, what websites they are visiting and the type of content they are being exposed to. Make use of parental control software, which can assist you in remotely monitoring their activities, as well as blocking inappropriate content
  4. Communicate — Maintain a clear and open line of communication between you and your kids. Encourage them to come to you when they experience anything on the Internet that looks odd, makes them feel uncomfortable, or if they feel threatened by something or someone online
  5. Employ strong passwords — Make a concerted effort to use strong, unique passwords for every important online account used by you and your family. Teach your kids to make it a habit as well
  6. Add two-factor authentication — Take advantage of two-factor authentication for any sensitive online accounts that you or your kids have. This extra layer of security will help give you as a parent added peace of mind while teaching your kids the importance of protecting their information
  7. Keep personal information private — Since kids don’t fully comprehend the world in which we live, nor the potential danger posed by strangers online, it’s critical to teach them the importance of keeping their (and your) personal information private when accessing the Internet. The sensitive and private information should include their name, siblings’ names, street address, home phone and cellphone numbers, and even the name of the school(s) that they and their siblings attend