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Librarians dislike filters

Local librarians Monday said they'd rather do without Internet filters and the federal funding tied to them than install technology that doesn't work -- or works too well.


Local librarians Monday said they'd rather do without Internet filters and the federal funding tied to them than install technology that doesn't work -- or works too well.

Officials in Fargo and Moorhead reacted to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said Congress can require public libraries to equip computers with anti-pornography filters. Justices rejected librarians' complaints that the law amounts to censorship.

The 6-3 ruling reinstates a 2000 law that told libraries to install filters or surrender federal money.

Charles Pace, director of the Fargo Public Library, said he would advise against installing filters if the issue came before the library's board of directors.

"I think they can be costly, and they're not very effective from what I've seen," he said.


Although the majority of its funding comes from local sources, the Fargo Public Library has applied for and received federal grants through the Library Services and Technology Act, Pace said.

"It may be that we do not apply for grants there in the future if they're tied to filtering on the Internet," he said.

Like the Fargo library, the Moorhead Public Library doesn't use filters. Director Anne Fredine said the Supreme Court's decision will be weighed on a regional level by the 13 libraries in the Lake Agassiz Regional Library system.

Filters can work well for families regulating the Internet to fit their particular set of values, Fredine said.

But with public libraries, "there are so many more needs there, and filters tend to block significant information while not completely protecting from information you don't want to get through," she said.

"Part of the problem with filters is that the filtering companies won't tell us what will be blocked and what won't be blocked," Pace said, adding he knows a woman who was blocked from researching breast cancer.

Four justices said the Children's Internet Protection Act was constitutional, and two others said it was allowable as long as libraries disable the filters for patrons who ask. The law does not specifically require the disabling.

Pace said disabling filters would consume staff time that could be better used helping people find material.


More than 14 million people a year use public library computers, including many children, and the court said patrons of all ages were being exposed to unseemly sex sites on the Web.

"To the extent that libraries wish to offer unfiltered access, they are free to do so without federal assistance," the main ruling said.

Libraries had argued that the technology blocks a vast amount of valuable information about science, medicine and other topics along with dirty pictures. Still, those that buck Congress to avoid that will face a hefty penalty; libraries have received about $1 billion since 1999 in technology subsidies.

Pace and Fredine both said their libraries' Internet use policies have been effective without using filters.

Both libraries post lists of prohibited uses, among them looking up pornographic material and hacking. Violators are warned, and repeat offenders lose their Internet privileges.

"I don't know of any complaints that we've gotten from families that are unhappy with what their kids have looked at," Fredine said.

Monday's ruling shouldn't have a significant impact on libraries at Fargo-Moorhead colleges, officials said.

North Dakota State University, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College are filter-less and follow either state or in-house policies on Internet use.


"We don't have filters because they're a waste of money," said Jim Hewitt, assistant library director at Concordia. "None of the filters that are available can keep up with what's going on, and they end up filtering out what's appropriate and needed by students."

Speaking from a personal standpoint, Hewitt said filters are a good example of an unfunded mandate from the federal government.

"And in this case, it's even worse, because it requires spending money you don't have on something that doesn't work," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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