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Librarians' lawsuit looks like censorship

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 10, 2001

Political philosophy isn't properly described as a continuum with the radical left and reactionary right at opposite ends. Instead, bend that continuum into a circle, with the extremes of the left and right very close to one another and you get a more apt model of the truth.

For proof of this, take a look at the "Minneapolis 12," a group of librarians from the Minneapolis public library that last year filed a hostile work environment sexual harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The librarians said that having to work around unfiltered computers connected to the Internet, on which library patrons may access pornography, is sexually harassing and a violation of federal law.

The complaint is straight out of Catharine McKinnon's playbook. McKinnon is a feminist law professor who helped introduce the idea that women confronted by sexual imagery at the workplace are victims of sex discrimination. She and her fellow militant feminists, along with the enthusiastic assistance of the EEOC, have been largely successful in turning federal civil rights law into a mechanism for censorship. If employers don't strip the workplace of anything mildly off-color, they risk being sued.

While this paternalistic policy may have sprung from those on the political left, the Christian Right is nodding its collective head in approval. On May 23, when the EEOC announced that the Minneapolis librarians had a legitimate claim of sexual harassment, the moralist Family Research Council could hardly contain its glee. "A public library is supposed to be a place dedicated to quiet, to knowledge, and to beauty, not a dirty peep show," said Jan LaRue, the FRC's senior director of legal studies, in a press release. (Quiet is first?)

What makes the Minneapolis 12 complaint of particular concern for free speech advocates is that it throws the issue of sexual harassment into the debate over Internet filtering at public libraries.

So far, public libraries have strongly resisted censoring information on the Internet. More than 75 percent of libraries still provide unfettered Internet access and the American Library Association is unconditionally opposed to filters. As professionals committed to the free exchange of ideas, librarians have stood firm in the past against public hysteria over books like Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Fighting censorship is part of the association's noble legacy and modern purpose. Currently, it is part of a lawsuit challenging a federal statute that requires libraries to use computer filters as a condition of federal funding.

But now some of library association's own members are making the case for the other side. Wendy Adamson, a member of the Minneapolis 12 and a reference desk librarian at the Minneapolis Public Library main branch, says that after the library decided to give patrons unlimited access to the Internet, sexual images were routinely left on computer screens. Virginia Pear, a fellow Minneapolis Public Library employee, wrote in her statement accompanying the EEOC complaint, "As a result of (my employer's) policy, I have been forced to view computer screens filled with images depicting explicit sexual activity. . . . These same images have been printed out on our computers and left for the staff to find."

Of course, no one said respecting the First Amendment in the information age was going to be easy. In a marketplace of ideas, deeply disturbing ones are bound to exist. That's the tough part of freedom. It comes with certain trade-offs, one of which is we agree to occasionally be offended, disgusted or made to feel bad.

But that part of our social contract has been voided by the onslaught of hostile work environment sexual harassment claims. Federal law now protects us from feeling discomforted, which means everyone else has to adjust their tastes and interests to our sensibilities. Even in a place like a library, whose raison d'etre is providing information (for education or enjoyment), librarians' personal values have become the abiding consideration over the interests of the patron.

This is where sexual harassment law is moving us and there is little attention being paid to the consequences for the First Amendment.

That being said, I would agree that a bunch of creepy men who spend their time looking at pornography is not the best use of library resources. But by censoring them with clunky filtering software, you also automatically limit the rights of others who may be doing research in art history, the psychology of human fetishes, rape counseling and safe-sex practices. And is it any less wasteful when patrons use library computers to shop online, play video games or listen to music? Why should one frivolous pursuit be any more or less acceptable than another?

The sexual harassment case of the Minneapolis 12 is currently under mediation. If no agreement is reached, the case will go to the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department for possible litigation, or the librarians may sue directly.

The extremes of the political left and right are watching this case closely, ready to cheer on the censorship that is sure to follow.

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