by Karen L. Willoughby
Sandpoint, Idaho, is the kind of small town that appeals to the American sense of the ideal. Fir trees soar overhead, trout streams gurgle nearby. Window blinds are rolled upward in house after house on block after block of the 6,200-population town, displaying families at peace with themselves and their community.
But that trust has been violated, and townspeople are outraged.
"This is absurd," said Don Otis, who moved his family to Sandpoint from Los Angeles to protect them from the very type of moral turpitude he says the local government is sanctioning: Internet pornography.
At issue is the Bonner County Library District's refusal to filter access to the Internet on the 12 computers available for Internet use at its three branches in far northern Idaho.
The question first surfaced in mid-October, when the local newspaper broke the story of a woman's claim that pre-teens were being assaulted by the pornography on view in the library.
"I asked my three teenage sons-who regularly go to the library after school-if there was a problem, and they told me stories that were almost difficult for me to believe," Otis said. "Like a pastor's son viewing pornography; like three little 6-year-old girls who happened to be passing by a computer and being shocked by what they saw; like a library employee, presumably during work hours, looking at pornography. And just this week my 17-year-old said he heard one patron say to the library clerk that he was sick and tired of coming in to check his e-mail and seeing pornography on the screen.
Otis, said "To purposefully remove our moral boundaries-which is what is happening here with this library's refusal to help protect our children-is to invite disaster for all of us." He is the author of Teach Your Children Well: Helping Kids Make Moral Choices (Fleming H. Revell).
The adverse effects of pornography have been well-documented. In a study of convicted child molesters, 77 percent of those who molested boys and 87 percent of those who molested girls admitted to habitual use of pornography, Donna Rice Hughes recounted in her 1998 Revell release, Kids Online.
How does pornography harm children? According to Kids Online, it threatens to make children victims of sexual abuse; results in illness, unplanned pregnancies, and sexual addiction; promotes an ever-increasing need for more violent stimuli; may incite children to act out sexually against other children; shapes attitudes and values about relationships; devalues women; devalues relationship commitment; creates an increased appetite for more sexually explicit materials; and interferes with a child's development and identity.
To counteract the effects of pornography in Sandpoint, Otis has brought together the 35 or more townspeople who are most vocal in their objection to pornography being so readily available at the library, organizing them into the Bonner County Citizens for Sound Library Policies. The group is speaking in churches and during meetings of community organizations; they are passing out petitions, writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper and making plans for a show of community force at the library board of trustees meetings.
The situation in Sandpoint brings to small town America the importance of the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) rider on a year-end spending bill that passed Congress Dec. 15.
Sandpoint library director Wayne Gunter said library trustees are not willing to change current library policy because he anticipates that the Supreme Court would ultimately rule against CIPA, as they have every other encroachment in recent years on First Amendment rights. The library's current policy is to permit free access to all library patrons of all legal information available through the library system.
"The law plainly does not require filtering," Gunter said, and Otis agreed. "But the Supreme Court has left filtering questions up to local library boards," Otis said. "It is their free choice to place or not to place filters on systems used by minors."
Two concerns about unfiltered access in a public setting are that whatever is seen by one person can also be seen by anyone passing by; and that what a porn-viewer looks at is two clicks away from being inadvertently seen by subsequent users.
"The point is that people have a legal right to access legal information, regardless of whether other people like it or not," Gunter said. "For my personal point of view, God has given all people free agency. For example, Adam and Eve. God held them accountable but gave them their choice. They made their choice." He argued that guiding and monitoring a child's choices is a parent's responsibility, not the library's.
No one is asking the library to guide their children's choices, Otis responded. "What we are asking for is for the library to limit their choices, as we do with a driver's license or drinking," he explained. "The fundamental question is, are the library trustees willing to protect the youth of this community through mandatory filtering?"
"The library does not ... want to be an enforcing agent," the library director countered. "If parents are overwhelmed, then perhaps it is the role of churches to provide assistance to parents so their children are accompanied to the library by an adult."
There are controls in place at the Bonner County Library, the director said. Parents who do not want their offspring to have access to the Internet need only to not give them a library card. Books can be checked out with a photo ID but use of a computer requires a library card.
"This is the argument I keep hearing, that it's not our job to police your kids at the library,'" Otis said. "It is ultimately the parent's responsibility, but when you're dealing with tax dollars and publicly-funded agencies that are funded by tax dollars, and they have become the biggest X-rated provider in the entire county, and they're doing it under the guise of the First Amendment, then it's the parent's responsibility to encourage library trustees to make changes in their policies that reflect the community's values.
"The First Amendment does not protect slander, false advertising, perjury, child pornography or obscenity-all forms of so-called free speech," Otis said. "We have become so fixated on individual rights that we are ignoring our responsibility to make moral choices that best serve our communities."
Barrett Duke, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, weighed in on the side of the protestors: "While some may argue that people have a right to access any information they desire, those who make that information available are responsible for who receives it. If a public library provides a service that enables teenagers to view pornography, that library is guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in the same way an adult bookstore would be guilty if a teenager entered that store and freely viewed the pornography on the shelves. This community is right in calling on its library to behave in a responsible manner as well as a sensible one."