by Joan E. Bertin

In Holland, Michigan, a small town near Grand Rapids, there’s a pitched battle over Internet censorship in the library.

It’s only one salvo in what promises to be another long, drawn-out culture war.

On February 22, voters in Holland will be asked to decide whether the city should withdraw funding from the district library if the library does not install filters to restrict Internet access. The ballot initiative is sponsored by the American Family Association, and is supported by the Family Research Council, Presidential hopeful Gary Bauer’s organization.

Clever timing. February 22 is the date of the Republican primary in Michigan. Republicans will go to the polls to vote for their choice of presidential candidates. Democrats and independents have little reason to go to the polls, unless they happen to know about the library proposal—and care about intellectual freedom in the library.

So far, the library has resisted calls for Internet censorship. They’re not aware of a problem that needs to be fixed. A group of Holland-area residents, called Families for Internet Access, agrees. They observe that there is no history of misuse of the library’s computers, that the library’s rules about Internet use seem to be working fine, and that time limits and the location of computers make it unlikely they’ll be used inappropriately.

About a hundred people recently showed up for a meeting sponsored by Families for Internet Access to inform members of the community about the ballot initiative, and discuss the crucial issues—such as, whether library filtering actually benefits kids. There’s plenty of evidence that it’s a mixed bag, at best. For example, in one well-publicized incident, high school students in New York who recently tried to do research on Congressional voting records and other matters of public concern were denied access to the National Rifle Association site, the Planned Parenthood site, and sites about breast cancer, eating disorders, AIDS, and child labor.

According to a report in the New York Times, one teacher noted that students who use filtered computers in schools and libraries are at an academic disadvantage, compared to students who have unfiltered access at home or elsewhere. A student observed that, since the filtering system was installed, whenever she tries to find something, “it’s not there.” Last year, she routinely went to the computer lab early in the morning before school to do Internet research, “because there’s a teacher there to guide me through it.” This year, she doesn’t bother. “What’s the purpose, if I can’t get access to what I’m looking for?”

Nineteenth century skills won’t count for much in the 21st. Today’s kids need the education and skills to succeed in college or the job market, and that means technological savvy—the more the better. The filtering proposal, no matter how sincerely motivated, overlooks this important reality—and the fact that reasonable parents may conclude that the risks of unfiltered Internet access, if any, are largely hypothetical, that much more substantial risks exist outside the library (regardless of what goes on inside), and that their kids stand to lose more from filtering than they will gain.

If filtering advocates want to protect kids from sex and other material they think is “harmful,” they are free to do so—in their own homes. However, the library is a public institution that is supposed to serve the needs of all. Filtering would institutionalize one viewpoint about what’s good for kids, and make the library a hostage to that ideology. In contrast, preserving freedom in the library doesn’t impose any viewpoint on anyone—it leaves everyone free to make their own decisions about whether and how to use the Internet, and to make rules and choices for their children. Kids who want to break the rules have much better places to do it than the public library.

Besides, what qualifies as “harmful,” and who gets to decide? We’ll figure that out later; the proposal doesn’t say. For now, parents who want their kids to be able to do thorough research using the Internet, or want filtering to meet their own specific concerns—instead of choices made by the AFA or a computer software company using undisclosed criteria—had better invest in a home computer and sign up with the Internet service provider of their choice—or show up on February 22 and vote No.

In case you missed this part of the story, the petition in Holland follows a similar drive in Hudsonville. There, finding itself between a rock and a hard place, forced to choose between competing views of morality and child-rearing and the First Amendment, city officials decided to withdraw Internet access from the library altogether. This is hardly a victory for kids—or adults, for that matter. Still, the head of the Michigan chapter of the AFA promises similar initiatives in other towns, and he’s already announced that his goals go beyond limiting what kids see. He wants filters on most terminals in the adult section, too.

Stay tuned. Maybe your town will be next to be targeted for this dubious benefit. If you get it, you probably won’t have to wait long for someone to propose that the library start rating and restricting books.

Joan E. Bertin is Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship.