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No Porn Show at the Library

Protecting children from pornography used to be a lot easier than it is today. It used to be contained to seedy bookstores on the edge of town or safely hidden under the drug-store cash register for adult requests. Now, all a child needs is a computer with Internet access, and a sordid world of incessant images and persistent pop-ups opens like Pandora's Box. It lingers as close as the nearest search engine, or a come-hither e-mail. If the parent succeeds in shielding his child from porn at home, all that child has to do is walk to his local public library and get his porn fix there.

Facing this new frontier of filth, Congress created the Children's Internet Protection Act, which was passed in December 2000. As expected in our litigious society, pro-porn lawyers tied it up in court. Now the Supreme Court has ruled by a 6-3 vote to uphold the law and insure that public libraries are designed for education, not titillation.

The premise of the law is very simple. If libraries take federal subsidies intended to help them create or maintain Internet access, they have to install Web filters to screen out pornography on the computer terminals children can use. Now this should be completely non-controversial. It's sensible, it's appropriate. It's the way decent people think, pure and simple.

But decency - and simple safeguards for children - mean nothing to some. The self-proclaimed enemies of "censorship" - you know, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Library Association - cried foul and sued because the law supposedly violates the right to free speech. They even used the "digital divide" argument, that it's unfair for poor people without Internet access, who would love to download porn at home, but can't afford a computer. Isn't that a great welfare proposal?

But the suit didn't consider parents. It suggests free speech includes the right of a curious 12-year-old to walk down the street to the public library and surf for porn sites without parental knowledge or consent. Apparently parents should thank the local librarian for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Properly defined, censorship would be the right word if the government was banning the publication of Hustler magazine, or shutting down the pornographic Web sites. It is not censorship for the Congress to declare that if a) you want to accept federal money, than b) it will come with certain limitations and provisions, like Web filters to protect our impressionable children from porn and its potential side effects.

The ACLU types never consider that the opposite of "censorship" can also present potential free-speech violations. Why should taxpayers be forced to subsidize speech they despise? By taking the taxpayer money of God-fearing Americans to provide subsidized Internet connections that help enrich Larry Flynt & Company, one is doing precisely that.

The libertine lobby also argued that the law was unfair because filter programs screen out sites that are not obscene. Technically, that's true. It's also a silly smokescreen. A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that when set at the least restrictive level, filters correctly block 87 percent of pornography while incorrectly blocking an average of only 1.4 percent of sites with legitimate health information. Logic dictates that filter designers will only continue to improve the product, rendering the argument evermore foolish.

Speaking of censors stopping the free flow of information, take a look at the American Library Association itself. It actually tried to stifle attempts to learn more about how porn surfing could pollute its public libraries. In a 2000 Family Research Council study, librarian David Burt found that even with only 28.6 percent of libraries responding to his Freedom of Information Act requests, there were reports of over 2,000 incidents of patrons - many of them children - accessing pornography. Burt even cited testimony about public masturbation at library computer terminals by teenagers and adults. The picture might have looked even worse, but the ALA urged librarians to find loopholes to spurn Burt's FOIA requests.

An ALA pamphlet on "Frequently Asked Internet Questions" addresses "What do I do when I find a child looking at sexually explicit information online?" The answer: "Public Libraries do not have policies that restrict the content or use of information provided by the library. Therefore, these policies also protect Internet use." In other words, do nothing.

It's a good day for parents when the nation's highest court finds that Congress can insure our tax dollars are not being used to make our public libraries the taxpayer-financed equivalent of those old seedy bookstores on the edge of town. Pornography aficionados should seek their thrills in their own homes on their own dime, and leave the foolish public libraries alone.