PHOENIX, Nov. 27 — In its six years of service, the central Phoenix library has become a favorite destination for thousands of residents who have no other access to computers and the Internet. On any given day, separate areas for children, teenagers and adults – with 65 computers in all – swarm with users, clicking away at research, games, music, e-mail messages and chat rooms.
But some users are also clicking away at sexually explicit material, creating one of the thorniest issues that libraries nationwide now face: balancing community standards against the First Amendment rights of patrons who use the computers to view X-rated material.
"For me, this has been one of the most challenging issues of my career," said Toni Garvey, the city librarian, who oversees policy in the 13 branches of the Phoenix system. "We all want to do the right thing, but it's not clear what the right thing is."
Virtually all of the nation's public libraries are wired for Internet access, according to the American Library Association. But guided by only a handful of legal decisions, they have been pretty much left on their own to decide how to control material that is offensive to some but is protected under the Constitution. And the solutions vary.
Some libraries, like those in Cleveland, do not limit Internet access. Libraries in Raleigh, N.C., have installed software on all their 500 computers with Internet access to block sexually explicit material. Libraries in Great Falls, Mont., require parents to sign consent forms for their children to use computers.
Here in Phoenix, patrons viewing sexual material might get a tap on the shoulder from a librarian and a request to look at something more suitable.
Many libraries have educational programs for children and their parents to warn them of the dangers of the Internet. And a growing number of public libraries use a combination of approaches, even if they do not always work. During a two-hour period at the Phoenix central branch this week, for example, three men were observed with sexually explicit material on their screens.
"We only want to act if they're involved with illegal activity," Cindy Holt, information services manager for the Phoenix library, said, referring to material that is not protected by the Constitution.
Another problem, Ms. Holt said, is offensive material that sometimes pops onto the screen after one user leaves and another sits down. "We get complaints about that," she said. "We have to take care of it, but it cuts into our time."
Luci Kauffman, a library assistant who works in the teenage area, said even innocent-looking Internet games can lead a patron to an unsavory site. "We know it can happen," Ms. Kauffman said. "We can't accuse anybody of anything; we just have to get them off the computer or get them to log off and on again."
The challenge to strike a balance is made more difficult by the large percentage of children using computers. For that reason, the central branch here has designated an area for users under the age of 12, and all eight computers are equipped with filters designed to block access to Web sites with sexual content.
But such filtering is at the center of a case before the United States Supreme Court. The court has agreed to review a case involving the Children's Internet Protection Act, a measure signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 that requires public schools and libraries receiving federal money for Internet access to block all access to obscene material and to block children's access to graphic material. About 90 percent of public libraries get federal subsidies for Internet access.
The Supreme Court review follows a recent ruling in a lawsuit brought by the American Library Association and more than two dozen other groups claiming that filters violate library patrons' First Amendment rights. A three-judge federal court in Philadelphia said the act was unconstitutional for requiring a library to restrict First Amendment rights as a condition of receiving federal money for technology. With strong backing from conservative groups like the Family Research Council, the Bush administration appealed.
As they await arguments early next year, libraries are grappling with how to safeguard children as well as First Amendment rights, with a strong belief that the filters the government is promoting may not be the best or only way to do it. That view has made targets of many librarians, who are accused of failing to shield children from the seamier side of the Web in the name of free speech.
"We are criticized by people who say we don't care about children," said Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the Washington office of the American Library Association. "We just don't accept the idea that children are protected by these technological measures."
In addition, opponents of filtering software contend that filters block and discourage legitimate Internet use, like research on such topics as sexually transmitted diseases. Ms. Garvey said that in 1996 some filters blocked access to the 30th Super Bowl because, like all Super Bowls, it was designated with Roman numerals: Super Bowl XXX.
Several courts have ruled against filters.
In 1998, a federal judge in Alexandria, Va., ruled that a policy of placing filters on all the computers in Loudoun County public libraries "offends the guarantee of free speech" and is therefore unconstitutional. The ruling was not appealed. In 1999, a California state court ruled against the mother of a boy seeking to require libraries in Livermore to install blocking software after the boy downloaded pictures of nude women. An appeals court upheld the decision.
But to filter proponents like Donna Rice Hughes, author of a 1998 book, "Kids Online: Protecting Your Children in Cyberspace," and adviser to FamilyClick.com, an Internet filtering service, those are misguided rulings that lose sight of the larger issue of protecting children. Ms. Hughes insisted that the newer filters could distinguish between research and pornographic sites and that education without filters was useless.
Jan LaRue, chief counsel for Concerned Women for America, a Christian women's organization that promotes traditional family values, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, supporting the children's act. Ms. LaRue said Congress passed it "so that federal tax dollars wouldn't be used to turn libraries into dirty peep shows open to kids."
Reflecting on the question before the Supreme Court, Ms. LaRue and others favoring filters say their use is not a First Amendment issue but the right of Congress to determine conditions under which taxpayer money can be spent, pointing out that libraries and public schools can always provide unrestricted Internet access by choosing not to accept federal money to get it.
Yet the need to find a balanced approach scarcely abates.
Around the time the men at the Phoenix central library were spotted with sexual material on their screens, a trio of teenage girls huddled around a computer screen in Teen Central, an area just for those ages 12 to 19, where the 20 computers are not filtered. They were clicking around a site populated by students at their school, Green Mountain High, when suddenly pictures of topless women appeared. The girls giggled and quickly clicked them away, knowing that one of their classmates had added the link just to amuse his friends.
Angela Rojas, 15, one of the girls, said clicking onto something unexpected does not happen often. "Just an accident," she said, offering as good a reason as any why both sides on the issue are so concerned.