Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#50, August 31, 1999


by Marylaine Block

We Americans are downright defiant about anybody interfering with our first amendment right to free expression and our right to know. Except, of course, when it comes to the children we want to protect from certain kinds of knowledge.

Once, it was easy to keep kids from knowing things. I grew up in the generation that got its sex education from National Geographic, and couldn't find what the F word actually meant in any dictionary. Pornography might have been available on newsstands, but kids weren't allowed to look or buy. Most libraries didn't subscribe to Playboy, so library controversies were largely limited to books like Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye. Librarians would regularly trot off to school board meetings and courts to defend young people's right to read them.

Given the internet, though, kids can now tap into an unlimited range of ideas and images, which scares the hell out of grownups. And since libraries are the primary providers of access to the internet, librarians have suddenly found themselves public enemy number one.

Elizabeth Dole and Sen. John McCain demand that all libraries install filters on their internet terminals. Radio psychologist Dr. Laura, in a willful misreading of the American Library Association's Library Bill of Rights, declares that "by advocating open access to hard core smut, the ALA has constructed a protected haven to corrupt our innocent."

Once again, power over our lives is being asserted by people who haven't got a clue what they're talking about. I doubt that any of these people have ever spent much time on the internet, where porn sites are less than 2% of content, or asked librarians how they handle internet access for children.

If they did, they would find that librarians do with the web what they have always done: select high quality resources for their users, which they link to their library's homepages. They would observe librarians teaching people how to use search engines well and evaluate the information they find. They would see librarians honoring parental requests that their children not have access to the net, and monitoring children using the net, making sure they abide by the library's acceptable use policies.

But Dr. Laura and the politicians do not trust mere humans, even though they are information experts, to guide users. They want libraries and schools to install filters to protect children.

This begs a couple of questions. First, how are we defining children? Are librarians to treat 15 year olds the same way they treat 6 year olds, despite their differing information needs and understanding?

The other question is, which filter? Do Dr. Laura and Elizabeth Dole want us to use SafeSurf, which blocks the full texts of the Odyssey, the court ruling on the Communications Decency Act , and a UN report on the global AIDS epidemic? CyberSitter, which blocks the National Organization for Women, and any site that criticizes their methods? How about X-Stop, which blocks the Quakers' homepage, Planned Parenthood, and Shamash: the Jewish Internet Consortium? Or Smart Filter, which blocks the Nikzor Project (a Holocaust documentary source), and the National Institute on Drug Abuse?

Filters are not just protecting kids from dirty pictures, you see. All of them "protect" children from certain ideas, like feminism, birth control, freedom of expression, and tolerance, and from certain realities, like sexually transmitted diseases, the Holocaust, and environmental pollution. The assumption seems to be that kids will be safe from anything they're not allowed to know about, which is purest wishful thinking.

Librarians have become the enemy because they believe the truth shall make you free, and that deciphering the truth in a marketplace of ideas is the grandest work of free minds. They are under fire for defending people's right to the information they need, even if those people are under 18.

So when Dr. Laura says "when the budget comes up for libraries, eliminate it, eliminate it until reasonable decent people are in charge," ask yourself who you want to trust with YOUR first amendment rights: her? Or librarians, who don't want to protect anybody out of the information they need?

Even if what they need to know is "What station carries Dr. Laura's program?"

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