Public libraries have an important role in our democracy as the place where people can get a variety of information in many formats and on all sides of an issue. Controversy over resources offered in the public library is not new. The Library Bill of Rights was written by Des Moines Library Director Forrest Spaulding in 1937 in response to book burning in Germany during the Nazi regime, and is still relevant today. (See Library Bill of Rights in the Appendix).
The Library Bill of Rights states that library resources should be provided for all people of the community, regardless of their “origin, age, background, or views.” And the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Can some library resources be considered “obscene”? Individuals’ definitions of obscenity differ, but Iowa law defines it in Iowa Code chapter 728. Note that libraries, along with other educational institutions, have an exemption to this law in section 728.7. Why? Libraries have an exemption because they need legal protection if they own art, books or other materials which could be considered obscene under the Iowa law.
The Library Bill of Rights and the First Amendment apply to the provision of information in the library including the Internet. In 2003 the U.S Supreme Court ruled that the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was constitutional only if the Internet filters required by CIPA could be readily disabled upon the request of adult library users.
What does all of this mean for you as a library trustee? First, ask your library director to keep you informed on the status of legislation concerning access to the Internet in libraries. Or check for updates from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, http://www.ala.org/alaorg/oif/. Talk as a board about the issue, and if you haven’t already, develop a policy on Internet use. If the board does decide to offer filtered access to the Internet, make sure that unfiltered access is also available in the library.