Your rights take hard lefts

You’re sitting in the library, minding your own beeswax, perhaps reading this very column, when a government agent taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey pal, you shouldn’t be looking at that.”

Can’t happen here? Consider the Sacramento Library’s “Internet Use and Access Policy.”

The Sacramento County Public Library Authority Board meets on March 27 to review a year-old policy that allows librarians to monitor and limit access to some Web sites.

Current library rules require adults to specifically request unfiltered Internet access and minors to provide parental permission to get unfiltered access.

With the filters on, the library Internet browsers block material deemed by the software to be inappropriate. But such filters are notoriously overzealous, sometimes blocking information about safe sex, routine health, gay and lesbian issues, even political Web sites. One study of San Jose libraries found filters blocking, the Web site for the world’s largest Spanish language broadcaster, along with WebMD and the Victims of Pornography anti-pornography site.

The policy is, of course, supposed to protect kids. From Univision, perhaps, but also more harmful material such as hard-core porn.

But according to a review of library incident reports by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, out of some 3 million log-ins at all library branches over the past three years, there have only been 24 complaints by library patrons about Internet content.

Rob Fong.

“That’s point 000-something,” said Nicole Ozer with ACLU. To be exact, .000008 percent of the time, some library patron looks over another library patron’s shoulder and is made uncomfortable enough to file a complaint. But the policy also requires librarians to ask patrons to change screens if they are viewing something that “would interfere with the maintenance of a safe, welcoming and comfortable environment.”

“It’s as if I was in the stacks and someone could come up to me and say, ‘You’re making me uncomfortable by looking at that book,'” Ozer complained. The local ACLU chapter, along with Planned Parenthood and some individual Sacramento Library Authority Board members would like to see the restrictions lifted.

Sacramento City Councilman Rob Fong, who just finished a term on the library board, told Bites that librarians, of course, have the responsibility to keep kids from viewing obscene and harmful Web sites, and tools are in place to do that. But Fong said of the current policy, “I’m not sure it’s constitutional. I’m always concerned that we not be engaged in censorship—especially in our public libraries.”

Ironically, in January 2007, the Sacramento Library Authority Board signed an American Library Association resolution, proclaiming that, “In a free society, there is no place for censorship of any medium of expression.” Two months later, the board adopted the current policy to censor.

Bites is told the existing rules were a compromise between the civil libertarians and more conservative board members. In fact, when the policy was being adopted, board member Bonnie Pannell dismissed censorship concerns, saying, “Excuse my language, but screw folks’ constitutional right.”

Blue Diamond wants state Sen. Darrell Steinberg to butt out. The Sacramento Democrat joined Sacramento City Councilman Steve Cohn and other community leaders in asking Blue Diamond to agree to a few ground rules for a possible union election at the company’s downtown plant.

In the December letter, Steinberg and the others sought an election in a neutral location, like a school, with impartial monitors. And they asked that union organizers and company management be given “fair and equal access” to workers to talk about unionization, and they also sought a meeting with Blue Diamond CEO Doug Youngdahl to discuss the election.

Blue Diamond officials didn’t respond for several weeks, so Steinberg’s office gave Youngdahl’s office a call. That prompted Youngdahl to send Steinberg a terse reply, saying, “We appreciate your interest,” but such a meeting “would not be an appropriate forum at which to address this matter.”

In other words, screw folks’ constitutional right to organize.