As state lawmakers gather again today, Wednesday, Sept. 7, in Lansing for the resumed 2011-12 legislative session, representatives are being asked to consider a proposal from two members of the state House that would require all public libraries in the state that offer Internet access or computer usage to equip those computers with software that attempts to block minors’ access to “visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors.” Like virtually everyone else, we too are not in favor of people under the age of 18 being exposed to graphic adult material, particularly at public libraries. But this proposal, House Bill (HB) 4890, is attempting to pick a fight where none should exist. Lawmakers — particularly the chairman of the House Local, Intergovernmental, and Regional Affairs Committee, state Rep. Mark Ouimet (R-Scio Township), who can effectively kill the proposal immediately — have the power to make sure this bill dies before it sees the light of day, just as it should.
HB 4890, which was introduced by state Rep. Thomas Hooker (R-Byron Center) and is co-sponsored by state Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills), has been referred to that House panel for consideration.
The proposal would strike out existing statutory language relating to restrictions on minors’ Internet access.
The current law states that if a library offers Internet use privileges, the governing body of the library has to adopt and require enforcement of a policy restricting access by minors.
If a library currently offers Internet access, it has to make available to individuals of any age, one or more terminals that are restricted from receiving obscene matter or sexually explicit material that is harmful to minors; and reserve one or more terminals to adults that are not restricted from receiving any material.
The library can also use a system or method designed to prevent a minor from viewing obscene matter or other sexually explicit material that is harmful to minors.
Under HB 4890, those requirements would be replaced with the following statutory language: “The library shall equip all computers with software that blocks or restricts receipt of visual depictions that are obscene, child pornography, or harmful to minors. The library may disable the blocking or filtering software to enable access for bona fide medical research by medical personnel.”
The Michigan Library Association (MLA) is calling the measure one that would infringe “on constitutionally protected adult access to information.”
“This is legislation in search of a problem,” reads an MLA Advocacy Update. “PA (Public Act) 455 and PA 212 already call for adoption and enforcement of policies and procedures to restrict access to minors and prevent them from viewing sexually explicit matter. This bill goes significantly further. It also conflicts with federal court decisions pertaining to the CPPA (Children Pornography Protection Act).”
While we know of at least one lakes area case where an adult was caught looking at pornographic material on a public library computer, we know of no rash of such incidents. Almost without fail, according to Commerce Township Community Library Director Connie Jo Ozinga, adults are using the publicly-funded computers to look for jobs, conduct research, and access information that is not threatening to minors.
Hooker said he went to a public library in his district, saw about 40 computers that were in public view, and lamented the fact that one of them could be used to search for pornography. So what prompts this proposal is the mere possibility that such a thing could happen, not a barrage of porn-seeking miscreants hell-bent on accessing adult-oriented material — and thereby potentially exposing vulnerable children passing by the adult’s computer to that material. That seems a bit far-fetched, to us, an alignment of the stars that seemingly only rarely would happen.
McMillin, for his part, said he was aware at least one instance of an adult seeking porn on a library computer. Understood, and we aren’t diminishing the seriousness of that offense.
But this is, as the MLA put it, “legislation in search of a problem.” Minors are already restricted from accessing the adult content themselves under state law, according to the MLA. And that doesn’t take into consideration potential constitutional problems vis-a-vis adults’ access to information on the Internet.
The bill, at its core, is flawed. And a chilly response from the state Legislature last session — when McMillin said he introduced a similar bill after the American Family Association brought the issue to his attention — should hopefully indicate a less-than-favorable reaction from lawmakers in Lansing. Although Republicans are now in the majority in the state’s lower chamber, we hope they see the bill’s true colors, which is that it’s a piece of legislation attempting to tackle a problem that doesn’t really exist.