North Seattle resident Julie Howe sent this email:

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To the Editor at The Stranger:

I was at the Lake City Library with my two daughters (7 & 10 years old) at 4:45 on Sunday, January 22, 2012. I left them in the children’s section and went to look through the movie section, where I noticed that a man was watching hard core pornography (including anal penetration & other adult content) on a computer where the screen was facing out into the library. I told the librarian and asked for help in having him move to a more discreet location. She could see the screen from the information desk where we were standing and was sympathetic, but said that the library doesn’t censor content and they can’t be in the business of monitoring what their patrons are doing at any given computer. I then asked the man to please move to another computer. He declined. In the process of this interaction, I didn’t notice that my daughters had wandered over looking for me and one of them saw what was playing on the screen.

I have had extensive conversations with the library about this incident as well as with the police and local representatives. The man's right to access constitutionally protected information is fully protected (which I’m not in argument with) but our right not to be inadvertent viewers is not. The library is apologetic, but devoted to its guiding principle of supporting intellectual freedom, and I detected no urgency to ensure that not one more child is exposed to pornography in a Seattle Public Library.

I told the library that I will do my best to get this in the public forum as people need to know what’s going on and the potential risks to them and their children of being exposed to adult content while visiting the library. Please help us have a public discussion on this issue as I am sure that the library can create a safer space for children (and adults) and not infringe on other adults’ right to information.

Sincerely,
Julie Howe

Okay, then, let's have this discussion in a public forum.

"We are not censors," says Seattle Public Libraries spokeswoman Andra Addison. "Pornography is not illegal."

Addison says the issue of porn in the library "occasionally does come up." But the library allows porn: For about a decade now, Seattle has maintained a policy of filtering adult content from computers in the children's portions of the libraries while allowing the full range of constitutionally protected content at the main terminals for adults.

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Further, the library computers all have privacy screens that only allow content to be viewed head-on. The risk of inadvertent exposure—by, say, a person walking past and looking over a computer user's shoulder—may be more likely in smaller branches, Addison says, where "there is limited space between the collection and the computers." But library staff don't monitor content and don't see their role as asking a library user to move to a less visible terminal if someone complains.

The concern would be a library user deliberately trying to expose someone to offensive or controversial content against their will by directing their screen at someone else or trying to get their attention. Someone walking by—even in the middle of the library—who is inadvertently exposed doesn't violate that principle, Addison says.

"The minute you start going down the the slippery slope of censoring this or that, some don’t like kids looking at video games and or some people don’t like this political view," Addison says. The library's goal is to let people "access information in a confidential way and without scrutiny. Our rules of conduct are all about monitoring patrons' behavior, not about censoring content."

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