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During the nearly 15- year period since the Fort Worth Library came online in the mid-‘90s, patrons have experienced unfiltered access to the Internet at all of the system’s locations. Now for the first time ever, library officials say they’re in the process of installing an Internet filtering program at all of the 16 local branches.

Barbara Sharpe, IT administrator for the Fort Worth Library, said the desire to protect children was one of the motivations behind the decision to introduce a filter. Under the new system, material that is “sexually explicit” or involves “lewd nudity,” for example, would be blocked on library computers for all users.

There is one branch library in the 109: the Southwest Regional Library is located off of South Hulen Street at 4001 Library Lane, just a few blocks north of Hulen Mall. This branch provides free Wi-Fi to library card holders and offers Family Story Time and several volunteer programs.

Internet filtering software programs, which vary by maker, search websites and classify their content according to predetermined categories. Sites found to contain offensive material, as defined by the filter, are then blocked and patrons are unable to access them.

“The idea is for us to shield children from things that probably would not be in their best interest,” Sharpe said. “If they’re doing an anatomy class and they want to see all the parts of the body, there’d be no problem with that.”

Sharpe recounted a recent incident where two young men became “overly excited” after looking at sexually-based material online at a Fort Worth Library branch. They were asked to leave, but she said the Internet filter restrictions aim to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

Patrons who personally chose to access inappropriate material weren’t the only ones who faced exposure to offensive images or text, Sharpe said.

“There was also one guy who would come to look at porn and a mother and child walked by; the child pointed and commented, and the library knew they had to change something,” Sharpe said.

After the installation of the filter is complete, websites like Hustler.com and other sites determined to contain potentially-offensive material would not be available on library machines, Sharpe said. If a patron would like a site that is blocked to be un-blocked, or vice versa, he or she can submit a written request to library personnel for review.

Library Program Coordinator Jeff Rodriguez said requests for reconsideration of specific websites will be handled by library administrators, not individual branch librarians. Material that is found to be offensive will be blocked at all branches, not just the one from which the request was sent, he said.

“Most of the time the complaints we get are from patrons who want us to filter more sites,” Rodriguez said.

Since the filter went live on a limited number of library computers, only one formal request to unblock a website has been filed, he said. The case is currently under review and no official requests to have a site blocked have been submitted.

Rodriguez said the possibility that some library users could be exposed to material they find inappropriate was another factor administrators considered prior to introducing the filter. Library officials are always “committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of patrons,” even with the new system in place, he said.

“We’ve established the filtering system as a way to respond to the concerns of those patrons who are sometimes unintentionally exposed to material they find offensive or inappropriate,” he said.

Sharpe said the installation of the filter system is scheduled to be completed by mid-December, or by Jan. 1 at the latest, for all Fort Worth Library branches.

Child-proof Internet filter for users of all ages

Sharpe said the Fort Worth Library’s No. 1 priority in introducing the Internet filter was to shield minors from any potentially offensive content, but one critic questioned the logic behind such a system.

Chris Hansen, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said it’s the decision-making process associated with filtering Internet content that worries him most. When it comes to choosing what children can or can’t access online, automated filters and library personnel might not be the best options, he said.

“It seems to me the question is not, ‘Should children read that book?’” Hansen said. “The question is, ‘Who gets to decide whether children read that book or not?’”

Hansen is not personally acquainted with the Fort Worth Library’s filter system, but he did take part in the ACLU’s censorship-based lawsuit on behalf of the American Library Association, Inc. in 2003. The case claimed that federal legislation in the form of the Children’s Internet Protection Act violated the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment.

Under this regulation, public schools and libraries can be considered for federal funding and discounted Internet service rates if they filter and block online content on their computers. Hansen said the law requires public entities to censor content that, although it may be considered inappropriate for children, is legal for adults.

“The law basically applied to both adult access as well as children’s access,” Hansen said. “What we were doing was censoring speech to adults, which everyone agreed adults had the right to read, in the name of protecting children.”

According to information from the ALA website, the Supreme Court later found that CIPA was not unconstitutional and that public schools and libraries could continue to receive federal funding under certain programs if they filtered their Internet access.

If the choice to censor and regulate content is going to be made on behalf of children, Hansen argued, parents should be the ones to choose what can or can’t be accessed.

Library patron and father of two Peter Couser said he supports the decision to begin filtering Internet content at his local branch even though his children don’t use the computers quite yet. He said he and his sons, ages seven and four, often visit the 109’s Southwest Regional Library to pick up kid-friendly videos and books.

“Every once in a while I come here and just work and use their Wi-Fi, but mostly we come and bring the kids,” Couser said.

Couser’s sentiments are in line with Rodriguez’s prediction that, as the Internet filter becomes a part of the public library experience in Fort Worth, administrators will be more likely to receive requests to block a site than to unblock one.

With the installation of the new Internet filter, the Fort Worth Library is now CIPA-compliant, but Sharpe said “nothing has happened” as far as federal discounts and grants are concerned. She said officials would likely investigate such programs in the future, but that they had not yet applied for anything.