Libraries, the Internet, and the First Amendment

By Balas, Janet L. | Computers in Libraries, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Libraries, the Internet, and the First Amendment

Balas, Janet L., Computers in Libraries

As more and more libraries offer public access to the Internet, librarians are finding themselves in the middle of a controversy over whether such access should be restricted to protect children or unrestricted to protect the rights of adults seeking information. A teleconference entitled "National Issues, Local Decisions: Libraries, the Internet, and the First Amendment" explored the issues surrounding the controversy in a 2-hour panel discussion. The teleconference was held on October 17, 1997, and was produced by the Urban Libraries Council and the College of DuPage with support from Ameritech Libraries.

Since teleconferences allow for audience participation, attendees at the various locations were given packets that included forms to be used to submit questions via fax. Other materials in the packet included biographical information on the presenters, a program outline, and guides for local discussion. Additional information on the teleconference is at the teleconference's Web site ( By the time you read this, highlights from the conference will probably have been made available at this site. A tape of the proceedings can be ordered online or by calling 800/354-6587.

The program was moderated by Joey Rodger, president of the Urban Library Council. The other presenters were Andrew Blau, Communications Policy Project, Benton Foundation, Washington, DC; Ginnie Cooper, director of libraries, Multmomah County Library, Portland, Oregon; Clifford Lynch, newly appointed executive director, Coalition of Networked Information, Washington, DC; Ann K. Symons, librarian, Juneau Douglas High School, Juneau, Alaska; and Ann M. Kappler, partner, Jenner & Block, Washington, DC. The varied backgrounds and expertise of the presenters brought a variety of perspectives to the discussion of this complex issue.

Context for the Debate

The panel first discussed the context in which the debate takes place. The national context is the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, which ensures that the federal government will not create or maintain an orthodoxy of thought or belief. Within this context, Joey Rodger commented, it would seem that the Internet should be viewed as a wonderful resource to encourage diversity of thought, and she questioned why it is instead the source of such unease. Andrew Blau stated that the unease with the Internet reflects the nervousness that society has over the changes that have come about because of the computer. The debate over the Internet is taking place in public libraries with the pressure from some to restrict Internet access while others support free access. Ginnie Cooper maintained that the debate should be in public libraries since their role is to be a forum for public debate of issues. Other panelists supported her position, saying that school and academic libraries have some distinct differences from public libraries that have kept them out of the spotlight in this debate. Ann Kappler noted that school libraries are more focused on education and are not as unsupervised or as unstructured. Academic libraries, according to Clifford Lynch, have a tradition of support for freedom of inquiry and also see themselves as a community, in which issues that affect the community are worked out within the community.

The panel then considered how the Internet as a resource is different from other resources. One important difference, according to Cooper, is the visual nature of the Web. People seem more disturbed by pictures. Another important difference is the lack of mediation often referred to as "disintermediation." Anyone can publish on the Web with no review of the material. This leads to anxiety about the quality of information being presented. The international nature of the Internet can also be disconcerting as users experience cultural clashes. Rodger compared the anxiety of today's parents whose children have technical skills superior to theirs to the anxiety of immigrant parents of the past whose children adapted to the New World faster than they did. …

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